Epitomising an Era: Blumenfeld Studio at Somerset House

Image100 colour prints detailing the career of one of the fashion world’s highest ever paid photographers have finally emerged, after years of dispute over ownership – a relic of Blumenfeld’s many lovers and complex family life. Constructed mainly from those shots deemed not quite perfect enough for the front pages of Vogue, Harpers Bazaar, Cosmopolitan etc. Blumenfeld Studio is an insight into the artist’s commitment to, and zeal for, his medium; endless photographs which evidence that he really did “always keep working up to the climax of what was visualised in the first place”.

What is most fascinating about Blumenfeld’s process is that it’s not the clothes, make up or often even the pose of the models which changes – but instead his background, cropping and props. The ever-present direct gaze of his models remains unchanged, perhaps a hand moves from chin to neck, but really it is Blumenfeld’s careful scenic arrangements which decide which piece of film becomes a cover and which remains unprinted.

Having produced the wrappings of US Vogue for more than a decade, Blumenfeld is chiefly recognised for having depicted, and forever framed, 1950s America as the ultimate era of sharp, effortless glamour. However, his most pioneering work was catalysed by a more artistic vein – his acquaintance with Dadaism and the Surrealists. His methods were anarchic, famously explaining that “if the film says to keep it cool, I boil it; if it says you should always keep it above a certain temperature, I freeze it”. This innovative approach to photography could be result of Blumenfeld’s introduction to the medium: he did not train in a studio under a master, but instead discovered a darkroom in the Amsterdam leather shop he owned in 1932, and, bored with the steady life of a businessman, began experimenting.

His highly technical experiments were endless: solarisation, warping with chemicals and hands-on manipulation, cutting, cropping, silhouettes and a range of completely bizarre uses of light and shadow. Many of the resulting images can be seen at Somerset House, and stand somewhere between psychedelia, painting and dream; in these intense pieces Blumenfeld’s affection for women is patent.

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Although Blumenfeld’s career began with a spell simply photographing his Amsterdam shop’s prettiest customers – a marketing scheme of sorts – his work is far more complex than just good looks. His women have power, their direct gaze is absolutely piercing – at times eyes are even manipulated to become bright white negatives; haunting and penetrating. He called his obsession with women “platonic erotomania”; accurate, as these images are regal and never crude, but bear the mark of a photographer in touch with his model’s sexuality.

Whilst the editorials of many fashion magazines can be made bland by the hand of the Art Editor (or “arse editor” as Blumenfeld preferred), the work of Blumenfeld studio often retained its artistic integrity, part due to the photographer’s friendship with US Vogue’s Art Editor Alexander Liberman. The numerous Vogue covers currently exhibited at Somerset House are a snapshot of the 1950s and of a time when magazines were plastered with something more enlightening than just a high-res photograph of a model in clothes. Nothing as imaginative as Blumenfeld’s carefully cut double-images, projections onto nude skin, or even, after the war, political statements, deck the magazine racks of today.

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Still, Blumenfeld’s work is eternally inspiring, and often mimicked; his iconic “doe eye” photograph, his sensual campaigns for Chesterfield cigarettes, tactile Woman in Silk, and precarious example of model-balancing for On the Eiffel Tower. However, what cannot be reproduced, and what is missing from the austere fashion photography of today is sensitivity; of course this is partly due to technicality, partly due to style, but chiefly due to the photographer itself. It has been said that “a woman who wasn’t previously beautiful, became beautiful if Blumenfeld though them so”; his models clearly felt confidence and pride in working with him, and the strength of this shines through in glowing, vital pieces. In every photograph there is the tiniest discernible edge of a smile in the corner of a lip, or eye – a result of Blumenfeld’s final, most mysterious trick: “To soften my models, before I start shooting, I ask every one of them ‘will you marry me?’” Image

Blumenfeld Studio, Somerset House East Wing Galleries

23 May–1 September 2013

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