In the 1940s and 50s, Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the most sought-after photographers in the world. His vivid colour images appeared on the covers of US Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as well as campaigns for beauty brands, cars and cigarettes. His work was pioneering: experiments with multiple-exposure, double portraits and solarisation have had a lasting influence on fashion imagery.
Blumenfeld had an extraordinary life. He was born in Berlin in 1897 and moved to Amsterdam in 1918 after being conscripted to the German army during World War One. It was there that he established a Dutch arm of the Dadaist movement, making collages under the pseudonym Jan Bloomfeld. He also opened a leather goods shop and dabbled in photography, taking pictures of customers and producing images in a darkroom he had set up in the building.
Blumenfeld’s photography career took off when he moved to Paris, where he was commissioned to take portraits of famous artists including Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. (He also secured a contract with French Vogue). He moved to the US in 1941 after being interned in concentration camps in France and went on to create more covers for US Vogue than any other photographer.
While he is best known for his commercial work, some of Blumenfeld’s most experimental images are personal ones made during his early career – from collages and double exposures to solarised nudes. A new exhibition at Osborne Samuel Gallery in London brings together a collection of early prints, collages, drawings and personal ephemera, many of which have never been seen before in the UK.
Collages reference Blumenfeld’s personal life and experiences. One features a swastika, a Star of David and religious figures while others combine images of cabaret dancers with cuttings from sheet music and drawings of actors and jazz players.
“The early collages physically solidify his thoughts: his knowledge and love of words, his sexuality and obsessions (Charlie Chaplin for example) – they teach us about who he is via visual clues,” says Lou Proud, who curated the exhibition at Osborne Samuel.
“Later, in a similar way, he builds and moulds his photographic works, both private and commercial. With many great artists it is important to see how they stripped back to reveal the basic nutrients of their craft – with Blumenfeld it is the same – we can see how he formulates shapes, textures and mystery, which are to become the pillars of his photography oeuvre.”
Early photographs featured in the exhibition include intimate portraits and striking experiments with lighting effects, photo montage and double exposure – techniques that were unconventional in the 1940s. Most were created during Blumenfeld’s time in Paris – a time when Proud says his creativity “reached a new boiling point”.
“Nude bodies are cast in mercury, shapes are carved like marble for the chemically stinking darkroom, and bosoms are parted and abstracted. His interest in textures on the skin continues; torsos are placed under wet silk and limbs are fragmented,” says Proud. Although much innovation was sizzling in his personal work, Blumenfeld still took society portraits and it was these that initially attracted English photographer Cecil Beaton to make a visit to his studio in 1938.
“Beaton’s introduction of Erwin Blumenfeld to Vogue is legendary. He wrote after leaving with a number of images to send to the magazine, ‘they will be fools in my eyes if they don’t use him, but maybe they know their business end and there is never great profit in new art and this something quite new and infinitely touching’. Vogue did use him and his work appeared almost immediately in the October 1938 issue,” says Proud.
Blumenfeld’s early work is more avant-garde than the commercial images that made him famous – though he experimented with many of the same techniques in his magazine covers and ad campaigns. Given Blumenfeld’s influence in the world of photography, it seems surprising that many of these works have not already been on display – though as Proud points out, they were not made for public consumption.
“A lot of Blumenfeld’s early work was very personal,” she says. “Collages were experiments, which sometimes contained personal messages or were made for his wife or close friends. Also, some of his first images of the natural nude were of his daughter – he was considering the form and how to capture that. So in a way time has had to pass for these works to be revealed and to be allowed to come into the public arena.”
Proud also believes that censorship would have likely played a role in preventing his more risqué images from reaching a wider audience. “Perhaps the solarised Paris nudes were considered too sexual or too avant-garde. When he arrived in the States it was quite difficult for him to really be himself and exalt the body photographically in the way he was used to because of the puritanism of the time. Even in the 1960s with magazines such as Playboy, the depiction of the female body did not become any more palatable for [Blumenfeld],” she says. “Women in his eyes were presented as plastic, homogenised forms with none of the crystallised, frozen allure that he had worked so hard to create a decade earlier.”
The division of Blumenfeld’s estate and scarcity of prints may have also played a part: his photographs were divided among various relations after his death in Rome in 1969. “Apart from some of the colour work [in the exhibition], all of the prints have been made during his lifetime by him – some are thought to be unique – and due to the geographical division of the estate there are prints in different locations,” adds Proud.
Blumenfeld’s early black-and-white images will perhaps never be as famous as his work in colour. His later images are timeless – they are also brilliant pieces of graphic design, featuring clever uses of shape, form, patterns, texture and bold colours.
“I think we all love, want and need beauty, and his later 1940s and 50s commercial images have simply been more publicised because of their sumptuous glamour,” says Proud. “The colours are so glossy and luscious they almost drip off the page! Blumenfeld did an incredible amount of covers for Vogue, more than any other photographer of the time and since.”
But these works are just one part of Blumenfeld’s extraordinary body of work. Somerset House recently staged an exhibition of the photographer’s later work – but Proud says the Osborne Samuel exhibition is the first major Blumenfeld retrospective to open in London since a show at The Photographers’ Gallery in 1993.
“There was so much more to Blumenfeld than the more famous fashion images,” says Proud. “It is not surprising that his stand-alone fashion images spring easily to mind, but these should be put into the context of a lifetime of unique and ever-renewing creativity. The show at Osborne Samuel affords a long overdue opportunity to view in London, for the first time in 20 years, Erwin Blumenfeld’s extraordinary oeuvre.”
Erwin Blumenfeld: From Dada to Vogue is at the Osborne Samuel Gallery, 23A Bruton Street, London W1J 6QG, from October 5-29. For details, see osbornesamuel.com