Chaplin sat for Steichen twice. Once in the summer of 1925, and again in February 1931. Both times were for Vanity Fair magazine and both times in New York when Chaplin was in the city promoting a film.1
Steichen later recalled that Chaplin was one of his “favorites” to photograph. He also remembered that during that first sitting in 1925, Chaplin was ill-at-ease:
The first time he came to the studio, his secretary,2 who brought him there, said, “Mr. Chaplin has another appointment, so he can only give you twenty minutes.” Then the secretary left. When we got Chaplin in the studio and started to arrange the lights, he froze. I dismissed my assistants and tried to work alone with him, but nothing happened. Finally Chaplin said, “You know, I can’t just sit still.3 I have to be doing something and then I’m alright. So I stopped working and got out a portfolio of my photographs…Then I started to talk to him about his films, and as I waxed enthusiastic about The Gold Rush, the film he had just released, he loosened up and became enthusiastic in turn. I called the men in and in a few minutes I had a half- dozen portraits of Chaplin relaxed and himself, the image of a dancing faun.4
Two versions of the famous photo depicting Chaplin, as himself, in the foreground and his screen persona, The Little Tramp, in shadow on the white screen behind him. The photo on the left is the more commonly-seen version. On the right is an alternate shot with Charlie’s arms slightly more bowed than in the photo on the left.
The session yielded one of the most iconic photographs ever taken of Chaplin and when the sitting was over, the two men talked until the small hours: “When he came to the studio, his secretary had told me we had twenty minutes, but we separated that morning in a café down at the Bowery at half past four. I don’t know how we got home.”5
1Lisa Stein Haven, “Chaplin & The Static Image,” Refocusing Chaplin, Scarecrow Press, 2013
2 probably Chaplin’s press agent, Carlyle Robinson.
3In a later interview Steichen recalled Chaplin saying: “You know it’s easy for me to do something in sequence for a film, but to sit still here for a picture, I just don’t know how to do that.” (Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day, James Nelson, 1958)
4Edward Steichen, A Life In Photography, 1963
5Wisdom: Conversations with the Elder Wise Men of Our Day, James Nelson, 1958