After going on a rampage last week and having all my friends watch Press Pause Play a photographer friend of mine recommended I watch a short documentary on the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld. The name didn't sound familiar but as soon as I started watching the series of YouTube clips I quickly realized that I was very familiar with his work already and extremely inspired by the conceptual mindset he had behind his work that I wanted to share.
He was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Berlin and by the age of 10 was given his first camera. He began experimenting with self portraits around age 14 and after WWI he became friends with George Grosz who was apart of the Berlin Dada movement and influenced Blumenfeld to continue his self portraits and magazine cuttings but expand it into creating dynamic and narrative collages.
In 1925 Blumenfeld got married, moved to Holland and opened a handbag shop but being a terrible business man he spent his days photographing customers that came into the shop and developing the photos in a darkroom he had in the back. Quickly he became active in the Dutch art scene and would showcase his photos in the windows of his shop. Blumenfeld was extremely inspired by the work of Man Ray and began to push his own experimentation's in the dark room, using solarisation and multiple exposures.
In his portraits of women there is a timelessness to them. He described the women he photographed as complex social beings, timeless and not objectified despite being nude in a series he worked on in black and white. He described his photos as psychological portraiture - a way of discovering what's beneath the surface. While taking photos of his shop customers Blumenfeld continued his self portrait series as well as seen below. This series of photo's convey a complexity of identity in a very vulnerable way.
"I am convinced there is something happening beneath what we are seeing in another world."
Eventually Blumenfeld's work got noticed by the magazine industry and he was published in Verve magazine in 1937 where his desire, technique, audacity and cutting-edgeness of the time began to be respected. Curator and photography specialist William Ewing was quoted in the documentary on Blumenfeld describing his work, "Double exposures, triple exposures, done in camera, done in the dark room, solarisations, high-contrast printing. We know he didn't respect rules. He was very proud of saying that if the instruction on a new film said never to heat it above room temperature, he would boil it. If it said never let it get below room temperature, he'd throw it in the freezer. And then you'd get these strange effects on the surface."
Cecil Beaton saw Blumenfeld's work in Verve and quickly tracked him down. Beaton wrote in his diary, "His merit as an artist lies in the fact that he is incapable of compromise, and although I would like him to work for Vogue, his pictures are not of Vogue quality, for they are much more serious, too provoking and better than fashion." Despite these reservations Beaton hired Blumenfeld and signed him on for a years' contract in 1937.
After WWII Blumenfeld and his family returned to the United States and he was immediately hired back by Bazaar and Vogue where he created highly stylized color images that defined the look of the 1940s and 50s. Despite the commercial environment he was working in he continued to experiment and refused to compromise his work for the fashion photography world. In turn he created the 'doe eye' cover for Vogue as seen above on the left. The model, Jean Patchett, was reduced to a flat white background with a perfect pair of lips, cat eye, beauty spot and no nose. This has been noted as not only one of Blumenfeld's best covers but one of the most iconic covers of Vogue's history. It is Blumenfeld's use of white space and color that really defined his fashion photography, like creating a painting with more dimension. According to Blumenfeld the real conflict between art and commerce was how to make fashion photography an art and he certainly figured out how to fix that issue.
Before his suicidal death in 1969 Blumenfeld crossed over into the world of fashion film or more precisely he helped create the world of fashion film through advertising and experimental tromp l'oeil effects. Below is a still from one of his witty films but if you are interested in seeing more all you need to do is click here.
Overall Erwin Blumenfeld is certainly a name that I will never forget again and someone that I hope you won't either. His work is beyond inspirational in his dare devil risk taking and his ability to create images that are timeless not only because of their concepts but because of the way that he was able to capture his models. The models weren't mannequins - they were free. This is something that truly is inspiring me right now and I hope has induced some inspiration for you all as well.