Host to London Fashion Week and home to the Courtauld’s History of Dress collection, Somerset House now aptly presents one of the most influential C20th fashion photographers, Erwin Blumenfeld. ‘Blumenfeld Studio: New York 1941-1960’ focuses on his career in America where, having fled occupied France, Blumenfeld began working first for Harper’s Bazaar, then for US Vogue, as well as shooting ad campaigns for many notable fashion and beauty brands. The title also insists on the importance of the archive: Ektachromes and transparencies left in his studio, from which modern digital prints have been made, their colour ‘reconstructed’ from a faded, tea-stained sepia to the fresh, bold colours that must originally have been intended. And it is well worth the work, for Blumenfeld’s use of colour – radical, experimental, sharp, fun and modern – is the primary, eye-catching attraction of this show.
It was not only the colour, however, which was avant-garde, but also techniques such as cropping, overlapping multiple exposures, double portraits (face and profile combined), and the isolation of certain features from their context. This cover of US Vogue in 1950 (left) – known as the ‘doe-eye’ cover, an epithet testament to the impact it made – is a notable example of the iconoclastic extremes that his aesthetic reached. The daringly pared down composition, the striking red lips and blue-shadowed eye detached from a face that melts away into the glossy white page, were a bold move away from the typical cover format. The covers themselves sit alongside the archive images or in nearby display cases, allowing an insight into Blumenfeld’s working methods, the development from idea or brief to publication – and the contrast is often surprising. The commercial basis of these photographs must not be forgotten; though Blumenfeld’s personal style and creativity burst out from every image, a certain amount of compromise must have been necessary with magazine editors and ad executives – though his rapidly rising reputation quickly eased such dissension, one imagines.
A handful of monochrome prints are included to illustrate Blumenfeld’s initial ventures into photography in 1930s Paris, in which he already shows a keen propensity to experimentation – with the solarisation technique invented by Man Ray, with figures half-concealed by drapery or smoke, or masked by a silhouetted profile. A portrait of Cecil Beaton in 1937 (right) demonstrates the latter approach to powerful effect. Beaton was instrumental in introducing Blumenfeld to Vogue, though he initially had his reservations, recording in his diary:
‘His merit as an artist lies in the fact that he is incapable of compromise, and although I would like him to work for Vogue, his pictures are not of Vogue quality, for they are much more serious, too provoking and better than fashion.’
These investigations into concealment, revelation or distortion of the figure appear later in Blumenfeld’s career with his use of coloured lights or strips, and mottled glass (eg: Dovima, left, in US Vogue, August 1950). The model, blurred and half-hidden, gains an aura of mystery and glamour, captivating and seducing the consumer.
These tricks have been interpreted by some critics as manifold forms of masking, whether using lights and props in the studio or manipulating the print in the darkroom. Like many artists, masking the subject to Blumenfeld gave a greater intellectual insight than superficial clarity. But it was a new departure entirely to apply this to a commercial fashion model, hitherto perceived solely as a clothes-horse; now she gained a personality and an alluring enigma. This powerful combination made celebrities of many.
Elsewhere, Blumenfeld engages with famous works of art; Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is recreated for US Vogue, and Houdon’s sculpted head of Diana is lit with yellow and blue light and given a double exposure, creating a striated, underwater effect. Repetitions achieved using light and multiple exposures give a depth and complexity to the image, almost like the fragmentation that Cubists believed to give a more total visual conception of the object. ‘Three profiles’ (Photography Annual, 1952), however, reduces this idea to its simplest form again, presenting three identical silhouettes, outlined in red, white and blue light – the Tricolore colours surely a recollection of the vision sparked by Houdon’s Diana.
The curator William Ewing recalls Blumenfeld’s anarchic approach to his medium in an interview for the film:
‘We know he didn’t respect rules. He was very proud of saying that if the instruction on the new film said never to heat it above room temperature, he would boil it. If it said never let it go below room temperature, he’d throw it in the freezer. And then you’d get these strange effects on the surface.’
Scavenging from art history and contemporary culture, there is undoubtedly a blithe Dada disregard for the rules in Blumenfeld’s career – one that is mirrored in his colourful private life. And so it was a shame not to see more of his self-portraits – the film reveals that he took many – in which the emigre German Jewish artist explores his identity. The naked man with his grinning clownish face, camera held to protect his modesty, is seen through a mirror in 1930; in 1936 he substitutes a cow’s head for his own, and in 1958 fashions a mask for himself out of crumpled paper, his glasses carefully repositioned on top. The extrovert performer never wanting to play himself, these inventive – or perhaps obsessive – masking techniques underscore the psychological complexities of Blumenfeld. Who was this genius behind the camera?