Vintage fashion photography: A glimpse into the world of Erwin Blumenfeld

Since studying photography during my teens, I’ve been fascinated by iconic photographers of the past.  However, until recently I’d not even heard of one of the most influential fashion photographers of the twentieth century.  Fortunately my eyes were opened to the work of Erwin Blumenfeld through a fascinating exhibition at Somerset House in central London: Blumenfeld Studio, New York 1941 – 1960

A photo of an Erwin Blumenfled exhibition posterErwin Blumenfeld was one of the foremost fashion photographers of the mid-twentieth century, taking more covers for Vogue than any other photographer.  At the height of his career it is said that he was the highest paid photographer in the world.  His work didn’t just include commercial photography but this is where he is best known.  However, his creativity and nonconformist approach from his less commercial work spilled over into his fashion photography, making his covers for Vogue and other high-end fashion magazines some of the most intriguing I’ve ever seen.

A photo of a door to Somerset House East WingThe exhibition is in the East Wing of Somerset House in a number of interconnecting rooms.  Most of the exhibits are colour prints although there are also copies of magazine covers and feature spreads in viewing cabinets and a small room with two films about Blumenfeld and his work.

A photo of Light reflections in Somerset House galleryWhen I visited the exhibition, it was a sunny day with light from the large sash windows illuminating the exhibition spaces: a perfect setting for losing myself for an hour.  The colour prints were all reproduced for the exhibition as no originals still exist.  The new prints were made from original colour transparencies using the original magazine prints as guides for colour reconstruction.

Blumenfeld exhibition postcardsAlthough the images in the exhibition were taken at least fifty years ago, they are striking in their innovativeness.  I like how the photographer Rankin, who features in the short film about Blumenfeld, describes his timelessness and relevance to current photography by saying that when he looks at Blumenfeld’s work he often has the thought “I wish I’d done that!”  To me this sums up his work.  Sometimes when looking at photography and films from an earlier period I can appreciate their novelty at the time they were taken but they can seem dated in their ideas and appearance (admittedly this can be part of their charm too!).  This wasn’t the case when I looked time and time again at the images by Blumenfeld, which would look just as fitting in a magazine today as they did half a century ago.

Blumenfeld exhibition postcardsI almost missed the small screening room that was showing two short films about Blumenfeld.  One of them, Beauty in Motion, is a seamless collage of films taking during the numerous fashion shoots.  As I had already looked at the prints by the time I saw the film, it was fascinating to see some of the surreal scenes come alive, for example, models moving in front of and behind coloured screens, and moving mirrors creating complex kaleidoscope effects.  One of my favourite images created using repetitive mirror reflections is of a 23 year old Audrey Hepburn.

Blumenfeld postcard of from Picture Post photo shoot on top of some vintage rosebud chinaI was so in love with some of the images at the exhibition that I bought the set of postcards from the gallery shop.  I love this image from a shoot for Picture Post in 1947 called ‘Rose Hips and Syrup of Deadly Nightshade’.  It reminds me of some of my rosebud china tea sets!

The postcards are still in their box at the moment so I must add vintage photo frames to my shopping list so that I can frame them.

The exhibition is on until 1 September plus it’s free! I might even pop in once more if I need a vintage fashion fix.

Rach x

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