Previously unpublished review of Blumenfeld Studio: New York 1945-1960, Somerset House, London, 2013.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the world’s most sought-after photographers. His work was published by the likes of Vogue, LIFE and Harpers Bazaar, and The New York Times named him an ‘outstanding leader in imaginative photography.’ After his mysterious death in 1969 (he is believed to have deliberately induced his heart attack by running up and down Rome’s Spanish Steps) his photographic estate was divided amongst various relatives. Since then, much of his work has remained unseen by the public.
Blumenfeld Studio at Somerset House is one of several new exhibitions to remedy this: Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography staged an exhibition in the spring and another is planned at Paris’ Jeu de Paume this autumn. In March 2013, BBC4 presented The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women, a documentary on the photographer’s life. Gradually, Blumenfeld’s legacy is being pulled out of obscurity.
The focus here is on work produced at Blumenfeld’s New York studio. The images are largely commercial; produced for fashion spreads and adverts, they are necessarily steeped in fantasy and aspiration. They seem ideally placed in the elegant surroundings of Somerset House, the home of London Fashion Week. More than 100 photographs hang in the East Wing, all modern digital prints produced at Niépce Museum from the studio positives (which were so faded that the intended look of each image could only be estimated). While it is a shame not to see originals, the new prints are certainly beautiful: crisp, clear and full of glorious colour.
Blumenfeld’s photographs belong to a golden age of haute couture. His models are primped and preened; they occupy an expensive world of bespoke tailoring and silk stockings. Yet Blumenfeld was also an innovator who experimented with technique and style. In the second room, two photographs of the model Davina hang opposite each other. In one, Davina poses, impeccably dressed, in a perfectly focused portrait; in the other, Blumenfeld has distorted the image, reducing it to a rippling blur of colours and shapes. Together, the photographs are a neat summation of the Blumenfeld style.
A number of the artist’s early works are included, including his first magazine cover, for Votre Beauté in 1937. There is a black-and-white portrait of Cecil Beaton, who championed Blumenfeld at Vogue, and a colour portrait of Grace Kelly, lounging in a gold picture frame. Several of Blumenfeld’s fashion films are also shown. These have a strange, otherworldly quality, betraying the influence of Surrealism (a souvenir, perhaps, of Blumenfeld’s early years in Europe, where he was linked with the avant-garde).
Blumenfeld described himself as ‘an amateur […] one who is in love with taking pictures, a free soul who can photograph what he likes and who likes what he photographs’; this enthusiasm is evident at Somerset House. His photographs are bright, enticing and as fresh today as they were more than half a century ago.