No Mirror, No Art, No Echo, No Music: Erwin Blumenfeld
Since its inception, fashion photography had always struggled to distinguish itself as an art form. Directed strictly towards commercial ends, fashion editorials run counter to very nature of what was culturally understood about art; that it was liberating, a celebration of the beauty of our universe, a direct channel to the soul - certainly nowhere near the insincere act of selling commercial goods.
Yet, art has always been put to the service of ideas, cloaking them in captivating visuals to convey important messages about religion, philosophy and politics. Its primary raison d’être is as messenger, thus the romantic notion of art for arts’ sake born over the past century, rising out of the destructive powers of a world in flux, eventually adapted to its natural new role in the modern value system: art fell prey to economic market forces, paradoxically falling into line in neat, standardized and predictable structures through its absolute and chaotic liberation. Naturally, previous items belonging to the realm of every day goods and commercial ventures steadily gained new life as objects deserving of artistic admiration, and so, fashion photography was free to shed its commercial stigma.
The works of fashion photographers of the 20th century, whose original function was simply to illustrate consumables in magazines such as Vogue, were ubiquitously elevated to museum status. Not because Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar took it upon themselves to direct public awareness to the artistic avant-garde, but because of the immense size of their global presence, allowing them to attract the most talented, perceptive photographers, capable of producing inspiring works that pushed the boundaries of the aesthetic norms of each decade. With fashion and dress intrinsically embodying and projecting the wider social and cultural context, we now have a valuable body of work capturing the changing values and movements in society, giving us important insights into the past.
Some of the most daring works came from photographers who didn’t restrict themselves to capturing beauty within the limited confines of the commercially booming beauty industry, but looked to the world around them with curiosity and interest, soaking in the complex nuanced shades permeating the culture of their time. We look back at their photography with awe not only because of its aesthetic importance but also because its impossible not to feel the depth behind the lens, whether the subject was theatre, politics, society at large, or fashion. Out of all of the notable figures, Erwin Blumenfeld, with his complex identity, experimental nature and groundbreaking work, remains to this day one of the most iconic and revolutionary fashion photographers of our time.
In retrospect, he wasn’t a fashion photographer; he was an artist confined to the world of fashion, which is why the iconic Cecil Beaton hesitated for a year before introducing him to French Vogue, stating candidly that his photos were too thought provoking and too good for fashion. Yet it was this depth that allowed him to bring forth something beyond fashion and beauty, something beneath the surface, surreal and enchanting.
" Even today I remain convinced there’s a life in another world that goes on behind the transparent glass. We are doubles, without a mirror I would never have become a human being. Only fools call it a narcissist complex. No mirror, no art, no echo, no music. "
His obsession with unearthing hidden human complexities, of looking beyond the mask, gave his pictures the lingering impression of someone in search of something more, an unquestionable influence of his Dadaist and Surrealist beginnings. After experimenting with self portraits, Blumenfeld naturally moved on to creating artistic collages to channel his political views and anti war sentiments, a step which brought him closer to joining the Berlin Dada in its mission to question society and its values.
Between 1916 and 1933 his collages remained a very personal affair, used primarily to communicate with close friends. It wasn’t until he opened a leather goods shop in Holland in order to support his family with the arrival of his first daughter that he stumbled upon the path that would make his name. He discovered a dark room underneath the store, and began photographing the beautiful women he encountered, beginning with portraits and eventually turning to nudes.
Yet, he never left behind his Surrealist beginnings, and was greatly influenced throughout his early career by magazines sharing the works of the Parisian avant garde, impressions which are clearly noticeable in his harshly self critical, at times downright bizarre self portraits, as well as in his deep interest in psychological portraiture and utter rejection of photographic rules and techniques.
He was very proud of his methods - if instructions on the film said to never heat it above room temperature, he would boil it; if it said to never let it go below room temperature, he would freeze it. Through his disdain for rules he created trailblazing, otherworldly works encompassing double and triple exposures, solarization and high contrast printing visible already from his very first publication in 1937 in Verve magazine. By the time he entered the fashion industry, his stylized prints became the look of 1940s and 1950s America, redefining the definition of the fashion shoot by showing the world that it didn’t have to be anything at all – all of this achieved despite the commercial restrictions of his environment.
Perhaps the secret to his work is that he managed to never become absorbed in the superficiality and fickleness of fashion; his mind fixed firmly on introspection, a reality that grounded him while allowing him to shape his world with the audacity of someone whose existence is plagued by a constant state of emotional turmoil.
" Day and night I try...to shake loose the real from the unreal, to penetrate into unknown transparencies "
He was haunted by a deeply felt conflict of creating for commerce, an act he associated with prostitution. His 1981 book which he titled ‘My 100 Best Photographs’ had only one fashion image in the edit. Yet, art precipitated out of him, unrestrained, in everything he did. His photographic nudes of the women he encountered, his more representative work, are as timeless as they are striking in how he approached his models not as naked women, but as complex social beings.
Even when raw, his photographs act as a branch of dress up; dramatic and poignant, potent, artistic, emotive, never simply “as is,” even though they appear to be so.
Despite the fact that he produced one of the world’s very first fashion films during the 1960’s, the cyclical fashion industry was already moving towards newer things. It’s in its nature; fashion’s mode of survival is reinvention, its gods transitory, and its disciples’ venerations grandiose yet fleeting, shining their brightest right before they fade into indifference.
Once the highest paid photographer of the 1950’s, Erwin Blumenfeld died in 1969 at age 72 after a self inflicted heart attack brought on by running up and down some steps and not taking his heart medication. His photographic estate was left unseen and fragmented for decades due to ongoing animosity and disputes between his family members and mistress, who all felt entitled to a part of his work for being central to his life at different stages of his career. In recent years, his work began to be pieced together by his grandchildren, finally resuscitating his life and career.
He left behind a beauty that is as relevant and poignant today as it was groundbreaking then, only possible because of his perceptive reflections and explorative approach into meaning. His autobiography, Eye to I, was finally published after his death, deemed too critical of society to be released during his time, able to provide us a glimpse into the tormented soul behind the lens.