Within fashion photography, words like influential, visionary and prolific are used with abandon. Erwin Blumenfeld, the subject of a new fashion exhibition at Somerset House, deserves these monikers, and more. Blumenfeld created a seemingly endless roll call of instantly recognisable cover images for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Cosmopolitan including the much-imitated Doe Eye cover. According to Vogue ‘s archivist, Shawn Waldron, the ‘doe eye’ cover is ‘arguably not only Blumenfeld’s best cover, but one of the most iconic covers in Vogue ‘s history’.
The German-born Blumenfeld had an unconventional photographic career. Often termed a ‘late starter’, he took his first fashion photograph at the ripe old age of 40 – although his earlier, amateur attempts had been inspired by his uncle Carl who gifted Blumenfeld a camera when he was 10 years old. His earliest experimentations included self-portraits – a theme that he was to return to throughout his life – and post WWI, Dadaist-inspired photographic and magazine collages.
It wasn’t until Blumenfeld’s work (printed in the first issue of Verve magazine) caught the eye of Cecil Beaton that he made the transition into fashion photography. In 1937, Beaton introduced Blumenfeld to French Vogue and the photographer was rewarded with a one-year contract. However, it took a post WWII move across the Atlantic to cement Blumenfeld’s status. In New York, Carmel Snow (the editor-in-chief of Harper’s) gave him the chance to prove his worth – and Blumenfeld obliged, creating a portfolio of images that have shaped and defined the way contemporary audiences think about the 1940’s and 50’s.
That early experimentation paved the way for non-conventional fashion imagery that played with negative space, stylized notions of beauty and created icons. Blumenfeld was simultaneously seduced and obsessed with beautiful women and fetishised beauty. Combining his honed visual imagination with Parisian-borrowed Avant Garde sensibilities he experimented with props, shot through glass screens and coloured gels to create unique effects and exceptional images.
New York, and by extension America, suited the photographer. It became his adopted home, and everyone from Grace Kelly to Marlene Dietrich frequented his studio. Blumenfeld was, in his day, one of the highest paid fashion photographers, sought after by art directors, editors and commercial client. The promised land lavished praise and the photographer responded accordingly; according to Blumenfeld, he ‘resolved to smuggle culture into my new country by way of thanks for accepting me’. Looking at the country with an outsider’s eye he was perhaps better placed to analyse, define and shape the cultural landscape, depicting and reflecting society’s perceptions back on itself.
Despite this considerable success, Blumenfeld’s career faltered during the early 1960’s as a new generation of photographers moved in. America may be kind to dreams but it seems that, even for the greatest, they have a limited shelf life. Blumenfeld committed suicide in July 1969 (running up and down the Spanish Steps in Rome he induced a heart attack), apparently favouring death over old age. It is fitting that his legacy is inextricably bound up in timeless images of beautiful women.
For those who can’t make it to the exhibition, there’s an excellent collection of Blumenfeld’s fashion films (alongside an interview with the photographer’s son, an illustrated timeline and an exploratory essay) over on SHOWstudio.com. The BBC-commissioned documentary The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women is also worth a watch.
Related reading: Are Blockbuster Museum shows Helping or Hurting Smaller Fashion Exhibitions? via The Business of Fashion
Blumenfeld Studio: New York, 1941 – 1960 is at Somerset House, East Wing Galleries until 1 September 2013 (free admission).