True Blumenfeld – life and works of photographer Erwin Blumenfeld

True Blumenfeld – life and works of photographer Erwin Blumenfeld

David Colman

Photographer Erwin Blumenfeld created some of the most memorable fashion imagery of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s by endowing his pictures with something totally new – substance. It’s an idea that still resonates today

“Beauty is not pretty” may sound like the title of a forthcoming best-seller from any number of our fine modern authoresses – Camille Paglia, Susan Faludi, Ellen Degeneres – and it may yet be. But in 1944, these were the words of Berlin-born photographer Erwin Blumenfeld to interviewers from Popular Photography, and they said a lot about the conflicted life and aesthetic of this idiosyncratic photographer. Blumenfeld’s diverse body of work is now the subject of a retrospective, “Blumenfeld: A Fetish for Beauty,” at London’s Barbican Art Gallery, as well as a lavish book due out next month from Abrams. He, like a growing number of photographers today, had first envisioned himself as an artist, but allowed circumstances and ambition to steer him in a different direction, one of commercial success, that never sat easily on his shoulders. Wary of anything that smacked of the bourgeois, Blumenfeld’s most powerful photos always bore the mark of that distrust, as he undercut his cosmetic images with an awareness of beauty’s inherent superficiality.

Blumenfeld’s early photographs were largely political in content, consisting of imagery created for anti-Nazi leaflets in the ’30s. But by the end of that decade, he became largely unsatisfied with his startlingly graphic pictures – Hitler’s famous visage superimposed over a red-splattered skull (Hitler, 1933); a robed classical bust with the head of a dead pig (The Dictator, 1936). Women interested him far more, and of course, fashion work paid the bills better than political propaganda.

With his first magazine cover, for Votre Beaute in 1937, Blumenfeld set off on the road to commercial success. But even financial security never quite rid him of his penchant for tinkering with beauty through the eye of the camera, a tactic that has been expanded upon with vigor by modern art photographers like Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin, and Tina Barney. Whatever his influence has been, Blumenfeld was not quite proto-feminist. He had become fascinated by feminine beauty at a very young age when he was shown veiled nudes by Botticelli and Cranach. This singular experience began a lifelong obsession with women’s faces.

In the early ’30s, Blumenfeld worked in Amsterdam, running a leather-goods store and dabbling in the photographer’s darkroom he had discovered in the back. There he began to develop a style, based not on photography’s ability to make reality prettier, but on its power as a surreal yet impartial filter, using the faces and bodies of store mannequins. A review of one of his early shows belittled his work as looking like “snapshots.” An avid darkroom experimenter, Blumenfeld disdained photographers who did not print their own work; he once scornfully told Cecil Beaton that he left his work half finished by sending it out to be printed. Blumenfeld’s photographs of his Amsterdam circle – wan, stark, staring – still resonate today in the cold and vigilantly unglamorous fashion photography spreads of Craig McDean, Steven Meisel, Mario Testino, and others. Call it a Blumenfeld-in-the-1930s moment.

After moving to Paris in 1936, Blumenfeld hit his stride. Flirting coyly with then-taboo images of femininity, he jarringly juxtaposed the sophistication of Paris fashions with an anything-goes bohemian spirit, indulging anew the French tradition of putting the courtesan on a pedestal. He won the enthusiastic support of, among others, Beaton, who helped him get work with French Vogue.

When World War II began, Blumenfeld, a German Jew, was interned in a series of French concentration camps. Having served in the German Ambulance Corps during World War I, the bitter irony of his incarceration would never escape him. He eventually secured exit visas for himself and his family, and in 1941 fled to America. For all intents and purposes, he never went back.

In America, his scientifically clean aesthetic and his love of women’s faces soon made him a favorite with art directors and cosmetics advertisers; between 1944 and 1955 his work appeared on scores of Vogue covers. One striking example was his dramatic cover for the March 15, 1945, Issue, on which a broad, translucent orange cross was superimposed over a clouded image of a slender woman in a green hat. DO OUR PART FOR THE RED CROSS read the words beneath the image. He had finally brought together his dual loves of beauty and agitprop.

Though over the next ten years Blumenfeld would become one of the most successful commercial photographers working, a fact that brought him great pride and a sense of security after the horrors he had endured during the war, he never relented in his cynical view of life. As magazine photography moved away from strong graphic imagery, relying more on straight glamour shots, Blumenfeld became less interested in his assignments and more difficult to work with. This ultimately lead to a break in 1955 with Conde Nast’s art director Alexander Liberman, and an end to his groundbreaking work for Vogue. But Blumenfeld had already begun devoting more time to photographing landscapes and nudes, and writing a spirited and often savage autobiography, Einbildungsroman, which was published posthumously in 1978.

Having always decried nationalism in any form – proclaiming himself a Berliner when in Berlin, a Parisian in Paris, and a Manhattanite in New York – it seemed fitting that he died while on vacation in Rome, in 1969 at the age of seventy-two. But had he lived on into the ’90s, long enough to witness the renewed interest in his work, it is likely he would have been unmoved by all the attention. Blumenfeld, a lifelong fan of Expressionist, Fauvist, and Futurist painters, disliked seeing fashion photography in museums. Such places, he said, were for sculpture and painting; commercial photography, he believed, was best seen in print. Nevertheless, one can’t help but imagine what his reaction would be to discovering that his own contributions to photography had helped people both admire beauty and think about it critically. Now that beauty doesn’t have to be pretty, Blumenfeld can have the last laugh.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group