In purely fashion terms, was Erwin Blumenfeld any good? He was certainly a madly talented photographer – a self-taught, Dada-influenced, monomaniac control freak with a profound appreciation of beauty. But did his images aid the industry they were intended to serve?
If you haven’t heard of Blumenfeld, his spectacularly complicated private life and the squabbling among his inheritors is largely to blame. He was a German Jew who became a shopkeeper in Amsterdam, then a photography star in France, until WWII forced him across the Atlantic. He worked for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar at a time when those magazines prized daring and originality, so he could place his models behind opaque glass or beneath rippling water, obscure them with hats or picture them from behind – and give them four hands, or cat’s ears, or multicoloured Venetian blinds where their clothes should be.
His photos – digitally reconstructed here from faded studio transparencies – were never less than fun but they were generally a lot more than fashion. I have never forgotten his image of model Lisa Fonssagrives hanging off the Eiffel Tower, a remarkable pictorial example of homicidal intent that, sadly, is not included here. But I couldn’t tell you anything about the dress she wore other than that there was one. So, while I love Blumenfeld and you probably will too, if I had been Christian Dior, say, I’d have taken him up the Eiffel Tower and chucked him off.
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Vogue covers abound in this series of fashion portraits from New York in the Forties and Fifties. The pre-Photoshop photography from German-Jewish emigree Erwin Blumenfeld is unarguably accomplished, and it’s fascinating to see models with freckles, blemishes and even wrinkles. While this exhibition will have little more than passing appeal to non-afficionados, it provides an interesting segue to the other high-fashion show currently at Somerset House by Miles Aldridge. Given that it’s free, you might as well pop in if you’re nearby.
Firstly, loving that it's free. Everything is better when you don't spend money on it. The security guard was hot and really friendly. I previously knew little about Blumenfeld, but quickly gained a sense of his passion and talent, although it was a bit creepy how often they said he was obsessed with beautiful women. His photos are stunning and the exhibition highlights his precarious balance between what the world wanted from him and his personal exploration of photography and creativity. Seeing his Vogue covers exhibited next to experimental shots offers the viewer an understanding of this inner turmoil that so defined his life. A particular highlight was a video showing the thoughts both of critics and acquaintances, although the five minute fashion video montage was presented without context so I was left feeling confused about what relation it bore to Blumenfeld's photographs. Unfortunately, I waited to watch the video until last because I wanted to sit down and infuriatingly, there were always other greedy people using the chairs. This meant my final experience was to learn of his alleged suicide, leaving me feeling a bit depressed and in need of a piece of cake. Sadly, the cafe was a bit out of my price range so it was not to be. Overall, would highly recommend this exhibition. Blumenfeld created iconic images that deserve to live on in the public consciousness.
If you're interested in photography go see this free exhibition at the Somerset House. It is not simply displays of Erwin Blumenfeld prestigious photos, you also really get a sense of the way he worked too. Multiple shots in many a different way were taken of his subjects until he was completely happy, they can be seen here, alongside mood boards of colours and styles. What is most interesting I believe is that much of his work, especially his extensive cover photos for Vogue could easily have been made now and still feel fresh and timeless.
A beautiful exhibition! I will definitely go again...can'T believe it was free. Plus you also have the chance to hang out at Somerset House.