Erwin Blumenfeld a Vogue fashion photographer during the forties and fifties survived internship in a prisoner of war camp during World War Two to become one of the most influential photographers of all time. Don’t miss this colourful, marvellous retrospective of his work at Somerset House.There aren’t many truly lovely things in life that are free. The Erwin Blumenfeld Exhibition – The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women is absolutely one of them – rush to see it.
Graham Green once talked about ‘a phosphorescent prettiness’, to describe the silent movie stars Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. The same could be said of Blumenfeld’s alluring fashion muses of the forties and fifties, who resemble exotic, painted birds of paradise. It is a moment of perfect artifice and high-octane glamour in fashion, which is played out in Blumenfeld’s exquisite, daring and witty fashion spreads for the legendary fashion bibles – American Vogue and Harpers Bazaar.
Blumenfeld worked for two extraordinary female editors – Edna Woolman Chase and Carmel Snow. Snow’s genius was that she wallowed in everything that was new and different, and she gave free reign to here favourite photographers, including Blumenfeld, to banish stuffiness, convention and formality and to celebrate the new ‘youth culture’.
Clothed in couture works of art, Blumenfeld’s belles appear invincible; all youth and action girls, hanging off the Eifel tower, jumping for the lens, striking poses like dancers and athletes or giving the illusion of being coolly sliced in two by the line of the perfect parasol. Collectively, they capture a longing for beauty, optimism and daring after the Second World War.
In a forties winter fashion story, Vogue declares it must be – Red and Even More Red – and you can just imagine the sense of excitement and aspiration, as the collective female consciousness gazed at Blumenfeld’s breezy, playful images and then rushed out to department stores, or got out their Singer sewing machines and fretted, schemed and wondered whether to make do and mend. The sense of aspiration is palpable. Who can resist the thought of the perfect swingy car coat in a hot shade of tomato red? Not me. Women have been adorning themselves since we lived in caves; nothing beats the perfect shade of lipstick and a new dress.
Fashion is reinvention – and Blumenfeld’s extraordinary creativity distils this over again – from the sharp angled pose which perfectly captures the line of a ravishing, ‘New Look’ couture gown to the girl in a summer dress where you can almost feel the breeze rustling her hem; or a story on hats, where his muses cluster together like swans.
What hits you as you first walk into this beautifully staged exhibition, all acres of white space and room after room of startling, kaleidoscopic images, is that you’re witnessing the birth of colour. Colour photography was a hot new medium, and Blumenfeld makes a beautiful drama out of the opportunity. So, in one of the most successful Vogue covers of all time, in 1950, the photographer strips beauty down to its core: an immaculate pair of red lips, a beauty spot, smoky eye and perfectly arched brow which suggest confidence, independence and allure.
In another unforgettable image of Grace Kelly, he offers a vision of Kelly the actress and the woman, which is remarkably intimate, sexy and less formal than his fashion images. Dressed in softly, muted pastel evening gown, Kelly has her head tilted to one side, and she is resting her arm, which makes her appear more human and approachable than the icy screen goddess who married a prince. It’s a very sensual image that ushers in an exciting, daring new age of informality. I’ve seen this exhibition twice, and will go back again. Blumenfeld is a god in photographic terms – a daring original, without equal. His images transcend fashions and moments in history. His influence on photography is boundless. As renowned photographer Solve Sunsbo says, “ Blumenfeld was shooting 60 years ago what the rest of will be shooting in 10 years time.”
Blumenfeld, The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women is on at Somerset House until September 1st 2013. Admission is free. www.somersethouse.org.uk Images reproduced with the kind permission of the Blumenfeld estate. All rights reserved.