Monday, May 14, 2018

Photo Exhibit: Erwin Blumenfeld

Despite his many accomplishments - he holds the record for most Vogue covers - and the tremendous influence he exerted on younger fashion photographers, Erwin Blumenfeld has never received the wide public recognition that is his due.  Even his Wikipedia biography is little more than a stub.  Partly this was an accident of history - like many other German artists of his generation, Blumenfeld was forced to flee the Nazis and to live the life of an expatriate.  A more recent complication was the division of his archive, amounting to some 30,000 negatives and 8,000 prints according to the British Journal of Photography, distributed among family members following his death in 1969.

In addition to his talent with a camera, Blumenfeld was also a superb darkroom technician who was not afraid to experiment with innovative techniques such as the Sabatier Effect.  These, combined with his proclivity for using mirrors, veils and painted backgrounds in his photoshoots, allowed him to create a truly unique body of work.  Already while in Amsterdam in the 1920's, he had begun to explore Dadaism and his photographs were shown there in a group show beside the work of George Grosz (a lifelong friend), Man Ray and Moholy-Nagy.  It was upon moving to Paris in 1936 that he began his career as a fashion photographer.  By the time he emigrated to New York in 1941 he already had an international reputation and was immediately put under contract at Harper's Bazaar by Carmel Snow.

The current exhibit at the Edwynn Houk Gallery, while hardly qualifying as a major retrospective, does contain a number of Blumenfeld's most important works, enough to make this one of the most important photo exhibits of the year.  It opens with one of the photographer's most iconic images, a superb 1939 shot of a model in a billowing white dress perched precariously on the Eiffel Tower high above the streets of Paris.

Most of the photos shown at the current exhibit are untitled prints that feature female models photographed in the most imaginative ways possible.  Just looking at them should be sufficient to provide photographers with a lifetime of inspiration.  Perhaps the best is a photograph of a model, nude but for a cloth twisted about her waist, lying prone on her back.  It's a fine an example of the Sabatier Effect as I've seen.

There are two self-portraits in the show, one from 1937 where the photographer in his Paris studio shot himself in a mirror surrounded by his prints.  In the foreground is a sculpture of a torso with a photo of a model's face where the head would be.  It captures Bluemenfeld's entire world in a single image.  The second is a much more conventional portrait (except for the solarized printing) from 1950 in which the photographer wears a bow tie and looks more a Midwestern dentist than an artist.

There's also a portrait of Cecil Beaton from the 1940's that shows only one side of the famous photographer's face while the other is left in silhouette.  The eerily lit backdrop gives the print a definite Surrealist aura.

It wouldn't serve any real purpose to describe any more of the photos on display.  They really have to be seen in order for their originality to be appreciated.  For those unable to attend the show, there's a monograph by William Ewing, a copy of which I have in my library, that contains excellent reproduction's of Blumenfeld's work.

The exhibit continues through June 2, 2018.

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