Blumenfeld Studio: New York, 1941-1960, Somerset House, London – review

In his time, Erwin Blumenfeld was often cited as the highest-paid photographer in the world. Now, though, his name is only just coming back into general circulation after a long period of obscurity. A major retrospective masterminded by Ute Eskildsen, the distinguished curator of Essen’s Folkwang Museum, is planned for the Jeu de Paume in Paris in October and will be such a treat that it’s worth booking travel even now to make sure to see it. A smaller exhibition, devoted specifically to Blumenfeld’s fashion work and almost all in colour, is now open at Somerset House in London.

The reason for this new burst of activity is sad. Blumenfeld, who died in 1969, left his affairs in the greatest disorder. The photographic part of his estate was split between a mistress and various branches of the family, and only recently have the two sides been able to pull together. A whole generation, in other words, of that nurturing which is necessary to the promotion of any artistic reputation was just lost.

So let’s catch up quickly with some confident assertions. Blumenfeld, who knew both men, was a more brilliant experimenter in photography than Man Ray and outdid Irving Penn as a pioneer in fashion. Blumenfeld is a photographer of the very first water. It is an accident that he is no longer very well known, not a true reflection of his level. A number of Blumenfeld’s inventions have become standard tropes not only in fashion, but also in picture-making generally. His double portraits – profile and face combined – are one example. So are his multiple-exposure views of the same subject, stepped across the page, which give an almost typographical order to photographic imagery. Nobody did more to refine fancy photographic tricks (such as solarisation, which gives a lovely mysterious shadow to the edges of objects) into usable tools of commercial expression. His picture of Lisa Fonssagrives almost blown off the Eiffel tower in 1939 (the dress was by Lucien Lelong) is one of the fashion pictures that people remember for ever.

Blumenfeld was born in Berlin, and emigrated several times, first to the Netherlands, then Paris, until he arrived in New York in the middle of the second world war. His rise to fame in the commercial world was extraordinarily rapid: the penniless émigré in Paris was a major celebrity in what is now called the creative industry in New York within a few short years. At first, he shared a studio with Martin Munkácsi, another brilliant émigré photographer whose importance is still underrated. Blumenfeld acknowledged a debt to Cecil Beaton, who introduced him early to Vogue, and many later photographers in turn have acknowledged him.

Blumenfeld made his reputation making portraits, but quickly became a specialist photographer of women. Munkácsi had taken fashion outside, and used his experience as a sports photographer to show real clothes actually moving. In the same way, Blumenfeld can take credit for the idea that a fashion shoot was a record of some kind of interaction, however brief, between photographer and model. That hip-swivelling photographer played by David Hemmings in Blow-Up, standing over a prostrate model like a bullfighter over the bull, may have been based on David Bailey, but Blumenfeld had invented the personal eroticism of the studio shoot.

The search for vigorous expression rather than pseudo-aristocratic poise, even the confidence to concentrate on bits of women to stand for the whole, are pure Blumenfeld. Before him, models had been mannequins, clothes horses. In his wake they were not only desirable women with character and personality, but they were celebrities, too.

Blumenfeld attacked fashion on all fronts. At Vogue in the 1940s there had already been a certain number of photographers with pretensions to aristocratic chic: Baron de Meyer and George Hoyningen-Huene among them. Beaton – monumentally snobbish if not exactly aristocratic – had been there since 1928. But they were the exception. Blumenfeld was a fully-fledged Jewish intellectual and just as happy in literature or in painting as in photography. His autobiography was only published posthumously, but it’s a startlingly complex and good book. This high-octane figure, a one-time Dadaist, made mincemeat of the idea that photographers were mere artisan technicians. In New York, as well as being part of a circle of mainly émigré friends, he very quickly became a member of the coteries of such industry leaders as Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden. He also hung on to his independence: even at the height of his reputation as a Vogue photographer, he never had a signed contract, and remained almost a consultant expert. That was pioneering of a different sort.

Between about 1945 and about 1955, there was no more influential photographer in the world. For the magazines, for the advertisers, he was the one to get, and he tried always, whoever he was working for, to “smuggle in a little bit of art”.

A number of themes sum up Blumenfeld’s approach. He was always in search of a transformation if he could possibly get one past his art directors. He wanted to transform the necessary factual account of one frock differing from another into a real meeting with a person you might want to take to dinner. And he wanted to transform that meeting into clear memorable graphics. So strong were his pages that you could see him as a pioneering graphic designer, as well as everything else.

He used colour for maximum effect, sometimes painting his colours on the subject for more pep and zing than he could achieve by lighting alone. He was a thoughtful photographer, but it’s in the colour that we see the sheer joy he brought to his craft.

Again and again he used masks. He photographed many times behind bobbly glass or ground glass screens or through textiles. He used double and triple exposures as photographic masking. He had a special light fitted with a telescope so that he could use controlled light itself as a mask. He could mask in the studio and mask in the darkroom: his great gift to photography was to reveal the power of a sight only partly seen. He could do clarity if he had to, but, given the way his mind worked, Blumenfeld often found intellectual clarity where direct vision was carefully obscured.

The exhibition at Somerset House concentrates on his colour work and is an entertaining and intellectually exciting pleasure to visit. Blumenfeld had such originality that, although hemlines have changed, the perfect modernity of the pictures is intact. But his Ektachromes have deteriorated, and the prints on show are modern digital prints, made by the Niépce Museum at Chalon-sur-Saône after a major effort to recreate the colours before they faded. It would have been better to have shown a few of the originals alongside the recreations. There is something odd in the balance of objects in the show, where the display cases are full of vintage copies of Vogue, but the walls show only brand new prints. This was a mistake, but it is the only mistake in an otherwise magnificent show which goes a very long way towards identifying the exuberant brilliance of one of the great masters of photography.

Until September 1,

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