Seven things you need to know about Horst P Horst

Get the lowdown on the legendary Vogue lensman

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  • Horst P Horst

    Dress by Hattie Carnegie, 1939

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Patterns from Nature Photographic Collage, c1945

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Salvador Dalí's costumes for Leonid Massine's ballet 'Bacchanale', 1939

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher, 1939

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, May 14 1941

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Marlene Dietrich, New York, 1942

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Round the Clock, New York, 1987

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst
  • Horst P Horst

    Muriel Maxwell, American Vogue cover, July 1, 1939

    © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

    Horst P Horst

Horst P Horst

Dress by Hattie Carnegie, 1939

© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

The first big show of autumn focuses on legendary Vogue photographer Horst P Horst. But who was the man behind the iconic fashion shots and portraits of stars like Marlene Dietrich? Time Out finds out from exhibition curator Susanna Brown

1. He didn’t set out to be a photographer.

Born Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann in Germany in 1904, Horst studied design and carpentry in Hamburg before moving to Paris in 1930 to work as an apprentice to the celebrated architect Le Corbusier. ‘It’s not widely known,’ says Brown, ‘but what you see very clearly in his photographs is an understanding of 3D form. Part of what makes him such a skilled photographer is that he had this knowledge of the craft of architecture. He thought in three dimensions and about the sculptural quality of the light on form, not just about the two dimensional page.’ Marlene Dietrich complained about Horst’s dramatic lighting but even she couldn’t argue with the results.

2. He adored Coco.

Chanel, that is. In Paris, Horst met his lover, Vogue photographer George Hoyningen-Huene, and through him was introduced to a world of artists and designers. Salvador Dalí became a pal – Horst shot Dalí’s costumes for Leonid Massine’s 1939 ballet ‘Bacchanale’ and the surrealist’s influence is clear in photographs like ‘Electric Beauty’. But Horst’s most enduring friendship was with Chanel. ‘She only really came around to having her creations photographed for Paris Vogue once Horst started working for the magazine,’ says Brown. ‘There’s a lovely story about him playing with the putty that she used to make her costume jewellery, moulding it in his hands as they talked. After he left, she had it cast as a beautiful silver cigarette lighter. We have it in the show. It’s such a lovely token of the intimacy between them.’

3. He discovered the Cara Delevingnes of his day.

Horst helped to launch many models, including Lisa Fonssagrives and Muriel Maxwell (pictured). One of his most important discoveries was Ludmila Leonidovna Feodoseyeva, known as Lud. ‘She was a post girl at the Vogue studios,’ explains Brown. ‘One day when she was delivering a parcel Horst stopped her and said “I want to photograph you”. It’s the classic story that she went on to become this great star. And very different to most of the models you see in Vogue at that time. Horst described her as “sensual and catlike… not at all remote and cold. She revolutionised the look of the model.”’

4. The model in his most famous photograph remains a mystery.

Even if you aren’t familiar with Horst’s best-known photograph, the ‘Mainbocher Corset’ (1939), chances are you’ll have seen Madonna’s homage to it in her video for ‘Vogue’. Horst’s original model, though, is known only by the name written on the back of the print – Madame Bernon. ‘We don’t know her first name and haven’t been able to find out anything else about her,’ says Brown. ‘She’s not a model who appears in any of the other pictures in the Vogue archives. With the pictures that we’re borrowing from Paris Vogue the sitting date, the print number, the name of the hairdresser, the name of the designer, the name of the model is all on there but she isn’t in any of the other pictures. Certainly Horst himself never referred to her by name. I don’t think she was especially close to him but then all kinds of stories about that picture developed and Horst liked to continue that mystery. I think in one interview he said: “I didn’t show her face because she was crying.” It’s become one of those pictures that’s got a mythology around it. But that’s part of what makes it special.’

5. Vogue helped him flee WWII.

While Hoyningen-Huene defected to Harper’s Bazaar, Horst remained loyal to Vogue for six decades. He had good reason. The magazine was instrumental in getting him out of Paris just before the outbreak of WWII. ‘He was on the very final Atlantic crossing of the Normandie before war broke out,’ says Brown. ‘Once he was in America, Vogue were very supportive. But it wasn’t that easy for him. On paper he was an enemy alien. His travel was restricted and he had to surrender his camera equipment.’ While applying for US citizenship, Horst joined the US army. ‘We have his army dog tags in the show,’ says Brown. ‘The person listed in case of emergency is his Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase. She was a real mother figure to him.’ When he became a US citizen in 1944, Horst changed his name to Horst P Horst, losing his surname because of its similarity to that of Nazi officer Martin Bormann.

6. There's more to him than photos of frocks.

Horst took on more personal projects throughout his career, notably the trippy nature studies of ‘Patterns from Nature’ and a series of strategically shadowy male nudes shot in the 1950s; the influence on Bruce Weber’s Calvin Klein campaigns is clear. Horst’s grandest project, though, has to be his house in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Horst bought land on the Tiffany estate and set about creating his dream home. ‘It’s part Grecian simplicity, part modern American ranch, but then it’s filled with these extraordinary pieces of French design,’ says Brown. ‘It’s quite a crazy fusion house but I love it.’ The building served as Horst’s studio from the late 1940s. Guests included Greta Garbo and Noël Coward and it features in many of his most famous shots.’

7. In fact he wasn’t really into fashion at all.

‘He was never interested in fashion,’ says Brown. ‘When he said “fashion is an expression of the time, elegance is something else again” he pinpointed what he was striving for in every picture. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fashion picture, a portrait, or a picture of a tree, Horst’s work is always about elegance. I hope this show is a moment when another generation will discover him.’


See the exhibition

Horst: Photographer of Style

A retrospective exhibtion of Horst P Horst's prolific 60-year career. The German-American photographer did shoots for couturiers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli and Vionnet in the ’30s, as well as experimenting with early colour techniques. His most renowned images will be on display alongside rarities and unpublished pictures, plus there will be a recreation of Horst's 1940s studio. Archive film footage, sketchbooks and letters will also give an insight into his creative process.

  1. V&A Cromwell Rd, SW7 2RL
  2. Sat Nov 29 - Sun Jan 4
More info


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