In his time, Erwin Blumenfeld was often cited as the highest-paid photographer in the world however, his name is only just coming back into general circulation after a long period of obscurity. This exhibition at Somerset House open until the 1st September marks his overdue return to the international spotlight. The selection of over 100 of his characteristically subtle, colour portraits are reminders of his contribution to redefining fashion photography.
This small fraction of the archives from his Central Park studio in New York resurrects his reputation. Very few of Blumenfeld’s photographs focus on the clothes being modeled but all draw the eye to his compositions, taste for colour combinations and sculptural and abstract forms built from technical experiments.
During the time Blumenfeld spent in Paris in the thirties, he initially focused on portraits and the nude female form, abandoning his Dada collages and paintings in Germany and landing in Man Ray’s light experiments which inspired his own 1936 delicately solarised profile of his friend, Cecil Beaton. From there on, he built up original processes involving lighting, shadows, photo-montages and multiples of the models presented in Forties and Fifties New York through the covers and contents of American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Untitled Venetian Blind Woman, c.1943, engages with coloured light cast across the face of the model, while Untitled, 1947, sees glowing cut-outs serving as a backdrop for the model.
Blumenfeld’s use of translucent coloured filters led to his signature multiples illustrated in Spring Fashion, 1953. The overlapping colours in the images create a convincing impression of four models. Furthermore, his fragmented faces positioned behind coloured Venetian blinds, frosted and fluted glass and rippling water are very 21st-century constructions.
Standing apart, the classic 1955 Grace Kelly portrait taken during her “High Society” Hollywood days sees her climbing into or out of a picture frame, perhaps a metaphorical comment on closing her life in film. In contrast, Blumenfeld’s experimentation with the new diaphanous man-made fabrics were obviously a gift for the man who loved to shoot beautiful women.
Blumenfeld passed away in 1969 in typically unconformity style, believed to have deliberately forced a heart attack on himself by running up and down the Spanish Steps in Rome. Following his death, an archive of some 8,000 prints were shared between his assistant and three children. Many of these have recently been faithfully restored and digitally mastered. Blumenfeld left a stunning, much-copied and admired body of work that is surely as inspiring today as it was pioneering in the 1940s and 1950s.
Why not call in for Afternoon Tea at Axis in One Alwych, which is situated just around the corner from Somerset House.