Essay: Erwin Blumenfeld's Fashion Films, 1958-64

by Penny Martin on 25 September 2006

Writer, historian and SHOWstudio Editor in Chief Penny Martin examines the work of legendary fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld.

Writer, historian and SHOWstudio Editor in Chief Penny Martin examines the work of legendary fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld.

Still from archive footage shot by Erwin Blumenfeld (1958-64)

In almost every way, Erwin Blumenfeld’s was the perfect career in fashion photography. A late starter, taking his first fashion images at the age of forty, the German-born photographer spent the final three decades applying what he had learned as a young artist - associating with the great artists and intellectuals of the interwar period in Berlin, Amsterdam and then Paris – to the intensely creative context of New York magazine culture in the forties, fifties and sixties. There, his extraordinary visual imagination, sophisticated understanding of Avant-Garde aesthetics, experimental approach to chemical photography and importantly, his commercial pragmatism were embraced by the most influential art directors and wealthy advertising clients, making Blumenfeld the most successful and highly paid fashion photographer of his era.

The only drawback to Blumenfeld’s amazing success in fashion was that he enjoyed this aspect of his image-making least. Preferring to regard himself as an artist, the photographer loathed his reputation as a commercial practitioner. Of the all the images he selected for the edit of his posthumous retrospective book My 100 Best Photographs not one was a fashion photograph and in his autobiography Eye to I, he was highly disparaging about his key advertising patrons Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. It is perhaps surprising, then, that in the final decade of his life Erwin Blumenfeld devoted six years, from 1958 to 1964, to working on a commercially-oriented project: a series of television advertising-inspired fashion and beauty films that were intended as pitches to Rubenstein, Arden and L’Oreal.

Close inspection of the full archive reveals, however, that Blumenfeld’s experiments in advertising came to mean much more to the photographer than mere fashion promotions. The accompanying three film edits by SHOWstudio – drawn from the full archival holdings generously made available to us by the Blumenfeld estate - demonstrate how the subject of the photographer’s motion studies gradually shifted from commerce to art during his six filmmaking years, producing a rich and important contribution to the history of fashion and film. Indeed, it was only Blumenfeld’s wish to complete Eye to I that halted this crucial image-making experiment that predated the current interest in video art and fashion film by nearly half a century.

Fashion Photography: For a photographer that started making images at the age of ten, fashion photography came late to Erwin Blumenfeld. His first fashion commission - an image for Paris Vogue - arrived in shortly before his fortieth birthday in 1938. Having moved to Paris from Amsterdam, where he had begun his photographic career by shooting portraits of customers that frequented his leatherwear shop, a recommendation by English Surrealist Cecil Beaton finally earned Blumenfeld the Vogue commission the cash-strapped German immigrant so craved.

Over the two decades that followed, Blumenfeld’s career in fashion soared. His love affair with the female form was documented in sensual shots that used technical experimentation to explore themes of eroticism, visual elegance and obfuscation core to European art and intellectual culture of the period. Though free to pursue artistic extremes in his personally-motivated work (his nudes in particular) Blumenfeld applied a certain pragmatism to his commercial briefs. His experience as an apprentice to a dress designer in Germany during the First World War made him particularly sensitive to the cut and drape of a garment and fashion editors treasured his ability to communicate the ‘sartorial message’ of fashion as well as create a personal photographic statement in his stills.

Contracts with Harper’s Bazaar to cover Parisian fashion in 1939 and then a move to New York in 1941 established a vital creative relationship with the legendary Harper’s Art Director Alexi Brodovitch. But it was in 1944 when he moved to US Vogue to work with its art director Alexander Liberman that Blumenfeld’s most important creative partnership was established. The burgeoning enthusiasm for the new colour photographic medium that wealthy US magazines had funds to reproduce, and general optimism felt among New York’s creative industries brought by the surge of émigré intelligentsia from Europe, made the patrician fashion magazines a nexus of artistic talent and innovation. Coupled with advertising contracts for beauty giants Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden made Blumenfeld one of the most acclaimed and in-demand photographers of his time. By the 1950s he had also taken Edward Steichen’s mantle and become the highest paid.

Blumenfeld reveals himself to be most seduced by the artistic potential of moving fashion imagery, as if proving to himself it was capable of all the sophistication and intellectual aspiration he found so lacking in advertising.

Art vs Commerce: Though self taught, Blumenfeld was an inspired photographer, experimenting with props including ground glass screens, coloured gels and fluted glass to capture optimum visual effect ‘in camera’. He famously began his sittings in the dark, switching on each of his directional lights one by one to allow him to concentrate on the optical effect of each. Blumenfeld was also a virtuoso printer and spent long periods in his darkroom, controlling the appearance of the final artwork, the layout of which he also liked to direct. More an auteur than a team player, Blumenfeld highly resented intervention in any part of this process –from commission to printed page. Most of all, he hated the meddling ‘arse directors’, as he called them, that his fashion work called him to work with.

Despite his extraordinary success, commercial image-making was a double-edged sword for Blumenfeld. Having immersed himself in the Berlin art world at the end of the First World War, fraternising with the early Dadaists, befriending painter Georges Groz and creating montage artworks of his own and working as a painter in Amsterdam in the early 1930s, Blumenfeld’s first priority was to establish himself as an artist. He was a connoisseur of photography and well aware of the scepticism towards the world of commerce expressed by prevailing contemporary art practitioners such as Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand and Edward Weston. Blumenfeld echoed their sentiments by openly admitting he loathed being called a ‘commercial’ photographer – as was common in New York - feeling it prevented recognition of his work by the art galleries and museums he so respected.

Film Experiments in Advertising: Given Blumenfeld’s antipathy towards his reputation as a commercial artist, advertising films might seem a strange addition to his archive of imagery. Started in 1958 and spanning six years until 1964, the photographer’s cinematic experiments were prompted by the rise of perhaps the greatest commercial force of the century – television. Feeling frustrated with early, rudimentary television advertisements and convinced he could better them, Blumenfeld set about making film tests to show to his biggest clients Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden, Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis and L’Oreal.

Close examination of the approximately twenty-five minutes of existing footage reveals that Blumenfeld’s adventures in moving image were anything but mundane corporate fodder, however. To begin with, they were strictly amateur in production. The photographer was a great cinema enthusiast and loved the work of Charlie Chaplin. Upon moving to Paris in the mid-thirties, he worked as a stills assistant to the French filmmaker Jacques Feyder, around whom he learnt enough to master the 16mm medium when working alone. Just as he adored experimenting in the darkroom, Blumenfeld’s son, the writer Yorick Blumenfeld recalls him enjoying the dogged toil of splicing together film strips to craft simple edits.

Neither was Blumenfeld’s mode of creative expression strictly commercial. The tactics and aesthetic appearance of advertising plays only one part in a rich holding of moving imagery that focuses also on stylistic formations in contemporary art, notions of beauty and their application to the photographic shoot and many of the formal devices present in perhaps his strongest photographic period, from the thirties and forties. It is in this latter body of work that the photographer reveals himself to be most seduced by the artistic potential of moving fashion imagery, as if proving to himself it was capable of all the sophistication and intellectual aspiration he found so lacking in advertising.

The SHOWstudio Edits: In order to create the edits of Blumenfeld’s footage for the Experiments in Advertising project for SHOWstudio in collaboration with filmmaker Adam Mufti and sound designer Olivier Alary, we have arranged the material into three groupings: Advertising & Layout (which deals with the graphic business of processing imagery), Surrealism & Process (which uses backwards camera tricks and visual gags to focus the process of the photoshoot) and Abstraction & Distortion (which represents the greatest deviation from commercial mores, concentrating more on the visual experiments Blumenfeld had carried out in his most exciting, abstract photography). In addition to these edited films, a breakdown of the full holdings can be viewed below, in forty-seven sequences that we have arranged under the three headings of the edited films to which they correspond.

Historical Research:
Imogen Cornwall-Jones, Laura Bradley



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