Models Were More Than Just ‘Pretty’ to Fashion Photographer Erwin Blumenfeld

Photo: © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

The exhibition “Studio Blumenfeld: New York 1941–1960,” which opened today at Cité de la Mode et du Design in Paris, showcases Erwin Blumenfeld’s vibrant color photography for advertising clients and fashion media. The images on display include new prints of Kodachromes and Ektachromes taken during the mid-20th century, and feature striking commissions including American Vogue editorials, Chesterfield Cigarette ads, and a cover of Grace Kelly for Cosmopolitan.

Blumenfeld (1897–1969) was born in Berlin and, after the first World War, lived in Amsterdam and Paris. He had a string of odd jobs and dabbled in avant-garde circles, making experimental photo collages and montages. He built the bulk of his success, however, in the United States, where he arrived in 1941 as a Jewish refugee, having escaped occupied France with his family by boat, via Marseille. His granddaughter, Nadia Charbit Blumenfeld, one of the arbiters of his legacy, noted that he never shed his strong German accent and sported a French beret, his European-immigrant roots always evident.

It was British photographer Cecil Beaton who initially recommended Blumenfeld to Paris Vogue (the October 1938 issue was his first published assignment). He didn’t mingle with other Vogue contemporaries like Irving Penn or Richard Avedon (or Man Ray, whom he judged too much of a social butterfly). He initially shared a studio with Martin Munkàcsi in New York. Blumenfeld later had his own studio, at the tony address of 222 Central Park South. His granddaughter recounts it as a wonderland packed with plaster statues, mannequins, mirrors, gilded frames, painted backdrops, and folding screens.

Balancing clients and his own artistic ambitions, Blumenfeld forged a unique style. He brought art references into his commissioned work, with overt homages in such images as Breughel Girl and Dali Girl for Picture Post in 1947, as well as a 1945 portrait winking at Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring for Vogue. But mostly art was channeled by way of photographic experimentation, both during the shoot and in the darkroom. Blumenfeld upended visual grammar by toying with filters and solarization; he layered negatives, and even tested the effects of temperature by putting his images in the refrigerator.

Blumenfeld was never precious about the photographic image; he deployed it as a way to play with reality, transform it rather than document it. His two images of the iconic American model Dovima, from a shoot in 1950, are emblematic of this. The photo used by Vogue is a straightforward portrait, highlighting Dovima’s chic Harry Frechtel suit, Lily Daché veiled chapeau, and fur stole. In an alternative image from the same day, Dovima’s face and garments are clouded behind opaque glass. Her silhouette is beautiful, but it’s as though she’s seen from underwater. Blumenfeld valued beauty but was never mannered about it, which is what allowed him to get such surprising results. He is, surely, someone who would have loved Instagram (and maybe even have had a YouTube channel).

His models didn’t always conform to prevalent standards — he didn’t hesitate to photograph unknowns for covers, and his inclusion of African-American model Bani Yelverton in the ROYGBV fold-out “Rage for Color” was almost unprecedented in the 1950s. Despite the title of the BBC documentary about his life, The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women, curator and writer William Ewing notes Blumenfeld wasn’t just reductively chasing attractive faces. Ewing states that the reason Blumenfeld’s images of women resonate today is “because obviously he was interested in them as complex social beings.” The freshness of Blumenfeld’s output remains because of this progressive vision that did not objectify his models.

Blumenfeld was sometimes his own photographic subject (see here, or here for a more daring sampler). In the exhibition, there is a self-portrait circa 1960 before an advertisement for L’Oréal. His face is wedged between Kodak color control patches and Kodak Gray Scale, as he stands before a smiling blonde woman for Dop Tonic hair products. The image contains his professional assets within a single frame: his playfulness, his love of color, and his keen eye. Click ahead to see photos from the exhibit.

Models Were More Than Just ‘Pretty’ to Erwin Blumenfeld