Raj Lalwani unravels the stupefying world of Erwin Blumenfeld, whose legacy in fashion traverses through beauty and love, war and death.
Erwin Blumenfeld brought art and audacity to the fashion photograph, in a way that had never been seen before in the history of the medium, and has rarely been seen after. His repeated use of techniques such as translucent screens and multi-angle kaleidoscopic mirrors was no surprise, keeping in mind his strong surrealist leanings, his pictures always having an interplay of what’s visible and what’s imaginable, whether something is what it really is. It’s probably no surprise then, that his work in fashion wasn’t as much about fashion itself, but about perception.
Not so much about how the women looked, but more about how he perceived them, as complex social beings. His iconic work, especially in the forties and the fifties, was not so much about what an era looked like, but about how an entire generation perceived the way it looked. If the instruction for a new film said to never heat it above room temperature, he would boil it, it was said of his unending quest to bend perception.
“I was an amateur, I am an amateur, and I intend to stay an amateur. To me, an amateur photographer is one who is in love with taking pictures, a free soul who can photograph what he likes and who likes what he photographs.”
The darkroom was where his ideas were born, from sandwiching, solarisation, high-contrast printing, handpainting, and even print reticulation. But what was most significant about Blumenfeld’s technique was that he took photographic tricks, many of which he himself invented, into a space that went beyond gimmickry, and were used as bold tools of commercial expression.
“Day and night I try, in my studio with its six 2000 watt suns, balancing between the extremes of the impossible, to shake loose the real from the unreal, to give visions body, to penetrate into unknown transparencies.”
The Mirroring Complexities of Art
It is remarkable that his fashion aesthetic is mirrored in a mirror that he held at the age of thirteen, in 1909, when he shot a self portrait dressed up as Pierrot. The front view of his face merges with his side profile in the mirror, to portray a duality that he explored in fashion through reflections, shadows and double exposures. Through his commercial work, Blumenfeld was one of photography’s earliest colour practitioners, but when he was just out of his teens, he was one of photography’s earliest artists, being a prolific Dadaist collagemaker, a technique he famously used to make a statement against Hitler.
A Jew born in Germany, he braved through anti-semitism and eventually fled from Paris, where he had started some fashion work, to America. In his youth, he saw the death of his brother who was killed in war, and the betrayal of his mother who wanted Erwin killed for wanting to flee the army during World War I. The complexities in his interpersonal relationships made him a mature artist and a masterful psychological portraitist.
“I remain convinced there’s a life in another world, going on behind the transparent glass. We are doubles. Without the mirror, I would never have become a human being. Only fools call it a narcissist complex. No mirror, no art, no echo, no music.”
Erwin Blumenfeld is not just an iconic fashion photographer. He is the icon who created the iconography that defined the visual tropes of the genre, traditions adopted by Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, and even present-day icons like Nick Knight, who considers Blumenfeld to be his greatest inspiration. His most imitated photos are his most audacious, whether it is Doe Eye, the extraordinary 1950 Vogue cover that celebrates the influence of the surrealists, or The Girl on the Eiffel Tower (1939), probably the most daring fashion photo of all time. It was with this very audacity that Blumenfeld chronicled his own death, foretold.
His autobiography, Eye to I, ends with a fictional account that describes a suffocating last few moments and ends with “I was dead.” A few days after penning this, he deliberately induced a heart attack, running up and down the Spanish steps in Rome, after skipping his heart medicine. He was ill, and did not want to suffer. Erwin Blumenfeld brought art and audacity to fashion, to photography, to life and his own surreal death.
Blumenfeld’s legacy was in the danger of being forgotten, until recently when it was revived by three of his grandchildren, Remy Blumenfeld, Nadia Blumenfeld-Charbit and Yvette Georges-Deeton. Besides the hundreds of covers he shot, he left behind around 8000 prints, 1000 transparencies and 150 collages ad drawings, several unseen.
This article originally appeared in the September 2017 issue of Better Photography.Tags: Raj Lalwani, better photography, photography, fashion, fashion photography, Anniversary Issue Vol 2, Fashion Stories, Erwin Bluemenfeld