Erwin Blumenfeld at Hyères

The Photographer's Experimental Films Screen for the First Time at the French Festival

A montage of Erwin Blumenfeld's experimental beauty films premieres on NOWNESS today, having been resurrected from the archives by the late German-born photographer's son Henri to screen at this year's fashion and photography festival Hyères. Part of a retrospective of Blumenfeld's work curated by Michel Mallard and Raphaëlle Stopin, the series of shorts, titled "Beauty in Motion," were shot between 1958 and 1964 and pitched to clients including Estée Lauder and Helena Rubinstein, but deemed too modern by the brands. Originally a Dada artist, Blumenfeld began working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the late 30s. Utilizing photomontage, solarization and color slides, he merged the cheekiness of Dada with technical innovation, popularizing the aesthetic in glossy magazines. Says Mallard: "His work changed everything, creating a basis for culture today. Blumenfeld wasn’t a fashion photographer, but a photographer full-stop, creating images, trompe-l'œil, games of light." NOWNESS sat down with Mallard and Henri to discuss Blumenfeld's legacy.

Michel Mallard: Symbolically this exhibition is extremely important for us. It will be held in the Villa Noailles. Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles were rich bankers and built this villa in the hills of Hyères; they financed works by Buñuel, Man Ray, and many artists of the time. It is because of the photos Blumenfeld took of Marie-Laure that his career began: Cecil Beaton saw them and thanks to him, Blumenfeld started shooting for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Henri Blumenfeld: My father describes his first meeting with Cecil Beaton in his book [Eye to I], and Beaton’s autobiography also tells the story, but it is totally different. My father invented a lot of things, his reality seemed a little bit fantasized. 

Mallard: His biography is fascinating because he talks very little about his photography; he mostly talks about people, his life…

Blumenfeld: I’m not an objective judge, but I think the most interesting part [of the book] is his family. Also, he had quite mixed feelings about fashion photography; on one hand, it allowed him to make color photography and earn some money. In the 1940s, it would have been impossible for him to do that without the help of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar—but he despised that world.

Mallard: It’s always like that. Peter Knapp, the first creative director for Elle in France in the 50s, later talked about the problems with editors, egos, all that. It’s something I experienced too. Peter talks about it in the 50s, my experience was in 2005, and 55 years later it’s the same thing.

Blumenfeld: Yes, what he disliked the most was the people around telling him what to do. Fashion was full of horrible women, such as [Harper's Bazaar editor] Carmel Snow—he found them hard, cruel. But the person he had the most issues with was Alex Lieberman, who was the director of Vogue and later of the whole of Condé Nast. He once had a new idea for a Vogue cover, told Liebermann about it, and Liebermann ended up doing the same idea but with another photographer.

Mallard: But today we still see photographers doing shoots and covers à la Blumenfeld: his work is so graphic, so contemporary, it’s impossible to imagine it's 60 years old. Photographers such as Nick Knight and Sølve Sundsbø continue to get inspired by Blumenfeld. He was the first to do inventive studio photography.

Blumenfeld: And in color. He introduced color into fashion photography, which was a novelty.

Mallard: While a lot of artists find a formula that works and stick to it forever, he was in a perpetual renewal; he never stopped experimenting.

Blumenfeld: That’s true! Although he was most famous for studio photography, he made about 6,000 slides from photos he took during his travels. He loved experimenting with slides. That’s another lesser-known side of his work.

Mallard: His experimentation with film was fascinating—these aren’t narrative films, they’re strong concepts: a filmed translation of his photographic vision. He tried to convince some clients [as to its merit], Helena Rubinstein etcetera, but it was too avant-garde for the time. People weren’t ready for it.


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