Erwin Blumenfeld : risk-taker

L: US Vogue, 1st October 1949 R: Variant of US Vogue, 15th August 1944

Whenever I get a new copy of Vogue I always skip straight to the photoshoots. 10 times out of 12 they feature bored looking models against plain backdrops wearing clothes which I wouldn’t look twice at in the street. But every once and a while those pages completely captivate me: elegant women travel through distant lands wearing exquisite dresses or models emerge from surreal worlds created by oversized sets. There is so much potential for amazing photographs in fashion, but it is seldom fulfilled due the reluctance of magazines and photographers to take risks. Erwin Blumenfeld, a photographer active during the 50s and 60s, was a risk-taker and the results were definitely worth it.

Although the clothes are slightly dated, these photographs could have been taken today: the experimental aspects feel quite unnerving and clash with the more conservative style of the time. But that’s what makes these images so modern and fresh. A lot of Blumenfeld’s photographs feature optical illusions which make them intriguing and cause the viewer look twice. Why would you have several women wearing different gloves, when you can just give one woman more arms? On paper it sounds odd and awkward for fashion, yet the image itself works brilliantly. Perhaps the elegance of the clothes overrides the weirdness or her extra limbs go unnoticed at first glance due to her casual pose, but it just feels natural.

Blumenfeld manipulates materials to transform a simple image into a work of art. Frosted glass creates the illusion that the model is underwater while vertical and horizontal strips distort the human form. I suppose magazines have targets to meet and the majority of people would rather look at a shiny, smiley celebrity than a woman with a skirt over her head. As for me, I’ll still prefer the risk takers any day.

All the photographs are from my book, Erwin Blumenfeld, Blumenfeld Studio, Color, New York, 1941-1960 (Edited by Nadia Blumenfeld Charbit, François Cheval and Ute Eskildsen) however I’ve tried to make a note of all their origins in the name of the image file in order to show the date and where they were originally published.

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