“TO BE A PHOTOGRAPHER IN ITSELF,” writes in capital letters Erwin Blumenfeld in his book of memoirs, Jadis and Daguerre,1 where he explains to have wanted, following the example of Man Ray, to make of photography an “art for art.”
If from his beginnings as a professional photographer in Paris, between 1936 and 1939, his favorite subject becomes the woman, the female body is for him the support of formal explorations. Seeking the “eternal feminine,” his models are depersonalized, buried under veils like “living mummies” (series of nudes draped in wet silk), reduced to shadows or “derealized” by the use of solarization, giving the illusion that the model is floating in an unreal space. Tight framing, overexposure, double exposure, games of mirrors and mise en abyme, theatrical shadows and lights, demultiplication of silhouettes by multiple superimpositions, masking, and other virtuoso montages… his experiments led him to achieve compositions close to abstraction. Erwin Blumenfeld “seeks, in balance on the limits of the possible, to release the unreal of the reality, to carry out visions, to penetrate through unknown transparencies,” writes Michel Florisoone in The Love of Art in 1938.
After escaping from the camps and managing to go into exile in New York in 1941, this tireless experimenter invested in color photography – still a virgin land – for the great fashion magazines, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in particular, but also for a number of landmark advertisements, as well as for his revolutionary covers created between 1945 and 1950. Iconic among all, one of those that made the front page of US Vogue in 1950: its famous doe eye with a falling gaze emerging, above a scarlet mouth punctuated by a “greedy” fly, from a completely white page, says a lot about his plastic inventiveness.
“Simplification of the lines and eco nomy of the forms, suppression of the details to concentrate the catch of sight on the essential (like a scarlet mouth and an eye of doe) […] demultiplication of the image aiming at accentuating the movement, the modernism of clothing or the dynamism of the body…”2: here is all the ingenuity of Blumenfeld who, always combining audacity with elegance, anticipated many trends over several decades and knew, with a master’s hand, to outrage and divert the conventions of fashion – this “vanity fair” (sic), in which he applied himself to “smuggle in art.”
Erwin Blumenfeld was born in 1897 in Berlin into a Jewish bourgeois family. During the First World War, he was an ambulance driver on the front. He emigrated to the Netherlands in 1918, where he worked in a women’s ready-to-wear store while tasting the life of an artist: he made his first Dadaist collages. Married with three children, he opened a leather goods store in 1920 where he practiced taking portraits of his customers, after going to Saintes-Marie-de-la-Mer to photograph the Gypsies in 1928. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, he produced the premonitory series of photomontages Gueules de l’horreur. In 1936, he moved to Paris where he produced his first advertisements and covers, notably in Vogue France. In 1940, he was interned in camps for “undesirable foreigners” in France and then in Morocco before managing, in August 41, to embark with his family for New York, where he quickly became one of the most fashionable photographers. He became an American citizen in 1946 and died in Rome in 1969.
1 Published by Robert Laffont in 1975. Edited by Textuel in 2013
2 Emmanuelle de l’Écotais, introduction to Erwin Blumenfeld, Photo Poche, Actes Sud, 2022
Exhibition: The Tribulations of Erwin Blumenfeld, 1930-1950
Until March 5th
At the Museum of Jewish Art and History (Mahj)
71, rue du Temple, Paris III