Photography is loved for its ability to capture a moment – sometimes spontaneous, other times staged – but every time defined by one person’s viewpoint, seen through a lense by a single eye to be shared with many. Although fashion photography may begin with the clothing, in the bigger picture it too captures a mood, an energy and that of the 1950’s was captured to best effect by photographer Erwin Blumenfeld.
His name may not be as well known as that of Irving Penn or Cecil Beaton, but Blumenfeld shot more Vogue covers than any other photographer and is considered one of the most influential photographers of his time. Somerset House’s current exhibition ‘Blumenfeld Studio: New York, 1941-1960’ looks at the most prolific period of his career, with 100 of his images on show. Selected from 650 originals that were remastered by Blumenfeld’s grand-daughter Nadia over the past five years, their true colours have been reconstructed to repair the damage caused by years of New York summer heat.
Born in Berlin, Blumenfeld dreamt of being an actor before becoming involved as an artist in the Dada movement of the twenties. His interest in photography started in Holland in the 1930s, with his artistic struggle seeing success after moving to Paris. Upon meeting the inimitable Cecil Beaton there in 1937, he forged contacts with French Vogue and went on to create a contract with Harpers Bazaar in 1939. But it was not until 1941 that he could make these dreams a reality, when he escaped occupied France through Marseilles. The very day after emigrating, he began a three-year collaboration with the magazine’s visionary Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland.
His covers and editorials saw him dominate the fashion photography scene, carving a successful freelance career – highlighted by fifteen years working with rival Vogue’s artistic director Alexander Liberman. A challenge Blumenfeld relished was the consideration of a magazine’s layout, using negative space to extraordinary effect – his most famous Vogue cover, of January 1950, consisted of a single eye, mouth and beauty mark. There was something bewitching about his woman – a confident gaze, a slight smirk and their mystery often smoldering behind a smoking cigarette, a swirl of sheer fabric or a mottled pane of glass.
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His grand-daughter Nadia, co-curator of the exhibition, goes as far as to say his interest was in the woman as opposed to the clothing, something surprising for a fashion photographer. Nadia’s mother was the model editor at Vogue at the time and recalls Blumenfeld’s disregard for the typical American blonde beauty, instead favouring brunettes with long necks and brown eyes. The original supermodel Dovima, best known for posing between two elephants for Richard Avedon, was a favourite of Blumenfeld’s, as was Lisa Fonssagrives – later to be Lisa Fonssagrives Penn. A dancer before a model, it was this reason why she was chosen to feature in his 1939 shot, dangling with lithe ease off the side of the Eiffel Tower. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery and this particular shot has been referenced time and time again, most recently in Dior’s campaign starring Marion Cotillard.
This exhibition shows every element of Blumenfeld’s artistic achievements, with the display of final covers alongside alternate shots giving us an insight into the vision behind the image. The only part of the puzzle left is why such a talent stayed relatively unknown or anonymous, despite his work being so recognizable to this day. Blumenfeld ended his life in dramatic fashion, inducing a heart attack at the age of 73 after running up and down the Spanish steps in Rome while with his mistress, 40 years his junior. We lost a visionary that day, but his photographs will remain forever, perhaps unintentionally described by himself in his autobiography when he said “to date, everyone has had to die, yet immortality is just around the corner.”