Writing on photography

Review: Erwin Blumenfeld at Somerset House

It’s always tempting to be lured into an exhibition by the great stories that exist behind a photographer and his work. In the case of Erwin Blumenfield, a man who went from being an exile with a single suitcase to one of the most sought after fashion photographers, those stories are backed up by equally great pictures.  Growing up at the start of twentieth century in a German-Jewish family, Blumenfeld was immersed in avant garde art movements including Cubism and Dada (he was friends with George Grosz). Increasingly disaffected with his job as a small time shopkeeper peddling leather goods he became interested in photography and started to photograph his customers, sometimes nude.

Moving to Paris in the mid-thirties he continued to experiment and develop his style, and began to work commercially as a photographer until the advent of war forced him to flee to New York where he began shooting fashion for clients including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. This current show at Somerset House covers thirty years of his career, from his experiments in Paris in the thirties, through to his defining fashion photography of the forties and fifties. Whatever your feelings about the genre (I can probably count the number of fashion photographers I admire on one hand) it’s hard not to become absorbed in Blumenfeld’s work, which is consistently eye catching, innovative, and often very clever.

While he was clearly an expert at shooting relatively conventional fashion photographs of beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes, Blumenfeld also clearly never forgot his early exposure to avant garde art, and his photographs constantly reflect these influences. He experiments with a dazzling array of photographic tricks, including shooting models through fabric and glass, combining multiple exposures, solarising prints and over-exposing them almost to the point of removing all detail, not to mention his brilliant use of colour. It’s evident from the work on show that he was constantly pushing the limits of what his clients would accept, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Also on show alongside dozens of prints made from Blumenfeld’s colour positives are original copies of many of the magazines his photographs were printed in. This makes for an interesting opportunity for comparison and reveals some surprising truths, for example the extent of the tampering and airbrushing applied to many of the photographs before publication. It’s always easy to think of the unrealistic images projected by the fashion world as a relatively new thing, a product of the era of photoshop, but clearly even seventy years ago the image of beauty being projected by major publications was already beginning to disconnect itself from the raw reality produced by the camera (let alone the reality in front of the camera lens).

What is also very interesting is the extensive digital restoration undertaken on Blumenfeld’s now faded colour positives, restoring them to something like they may have looked when he first shot them. A small display demonstrates the transition from faded browns and oranges to corrected colours which suddenly appear staggeringly contemporary, they look less like fashion photographs of the fifties and more like a retro or vintage shoot done in the last decade. It’s strange to think that we are so used to a certain language of photography that even subconsciously our notion of a photograph’s age is sometimes determined by something like its palette.

A man professionally and personally obsessed with beauty, Blumenfeld is meant to have had numerous affairs (some have even suggested he had one with Cary Grant). His life ended as strangely as it was lived, increasingly dismayed at his own aging, he is supposed to have intentionally exacerbated an existing heart condition by repeatedly running up the Spanish Steps in Rome in order to induce a heart attack. He left behind him a remarkable and influential body of work. If the photography fashion world is notoriously derivative, it’s worth visiting this show just to see who most people have been copying for the last sixty years. Erwin Blumenfeld Studio is on at Somerset House until 1st September 2013.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography