Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the most recognisable fashion photographers of the 20th century, led a life that uncannily reflected the contradictions of his times.
He was a famous photographer of nudes who was once arrested for daring to allow his bathing costume to slip from his shoulder while sunbathing. He was conscripted into the German army during the First World War – and arrested for planning to defect – and years later was interned in France during the Second World War.
He was a member of the Dada movement, creating surreal photo montages, including many of Hitler’s face superimposed with animal skulls, yet he also took stunning commercial fashion portraits that appeared on the covers of magazines including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He went from poor and bankrupt to rich and famous.
Then, aged 73, he induced his own heart attack by forgoing his medication and running up and down Rome’s Spanish Steps until he collapsed. But not before he’d written an imagined account of said heart attack for his autobiography, Eye to I. Right up until his last breath he was a tireless creative, a true renaissance man, who dabbled in everything from designing handbags to writing poems and short stories.
A new exhibition at the Osborne Samuel explores how his hundreds of early Dadaist collages – made up of prints, drawings, clippings and writing, which were never displayed during his lifetime – went on to influence his more recognisable fashion work.
These pieces show his early fascination with testing the outer-reaches of the medium. He would spend countless hours in the dark room experimenting with double exposures, solarisations and high-contrast printing. He would boil and freeze his film to achieve strange effects in his pictures, and he was at the forefront of the colour revolution. The collages would combine disparate elements to comic effect, such as a shapely female body with a tiny picture of his head.
“He did everything possible to stretch, bend and break the existing boundaries of traditional photography,” says gallery curator Lou Proud. “He created works that reach far beyond what we could ever dream the medium could deliver, leaving us with what can be described as solidified magic.”
You can see the use of these experimental techniques in his more recognisable fashion work, such as his famous Vogue cover from January 1950, known as “doe eye” in which he reduced the model to a disembodied pair of lips, an eye and a beauty-spot, the simple tag-line “mid-century fashions, faces, ideas” showing a cool recognition of the avant-garde nature of the picture.
Blumenfeld was unafraid of sidelining the clothing and its wearer in favour of a striking image – in some photographs blocks of painted colour almost entirely obscure the subject of the picture, while in others the clothing may be present and correct, but the image itself is surreal, such as the Vogue shot from 1949 showing a model with four hands clutching pearls. His work bears traces of Matisse, Duchamp and Man Ray, yet is also unmistakeably his own.
While we now live in the era of the celebrity photographer, Erwin Blumenfeld was among the first of his kind, a true pioneer whose work bears endless reevaluation.
• Erwin Blumenfeld: From Dada to Vogue is at Osborne Samuel from 5-29 October, 23a Bruton Street, W1J 6QG