By Bill Dobbins
The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women: Documentary is a film by Remy Blumenfeld of the life and career of photographer Erwin Blumenfeld that is hugely informative and insightful and is a must-watch for any Blumenfeld admirer.
Erwin Blumenfeld is the greatest photographer too many have never heard of.
In the 1940s and 1950s, he was the highest paid photographer in the world, shooting photos for magazines like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar that were both the defining images of fashion of the day as well as highly artistic and experimental photographs, very daring for the day.
Blumenfeld has been largely overlooked because as might be the case his personal life was highly complex, with tensions among family members resulting in conflicts and dissension after his death that helped keep his work from being effectively celebrated and promoted.
Artists need champions after their deaths to keep their legacies alive. We only know about Vincent Van Gogh because his brother’s widow campaigned tirelessly to promote his work after his death. Otherwise, he would likely have been forgotten. Blumenfeld did have champions, namely Kathleen Blumenfeld, his daughter-in-law, Yorick Blumenfeld, his son and Marina Schinz, his former assistant. But their efforts were not sufficient to adequately promote his work. Recently his grandchildren have gotten together to renew this effort and give Erwin Blumenfeld the recognition he deserves.
Blumenfeld was born in Berlin in 1897 to a Jewish Bourgeois family. His father’s bankruptcy and death forced him to go into an apprenticeship at age 16. He got his first camera as a teenager but after World War I, he became involved with avant-garde art movements like DaDa and surrealism. He was friends with cutting-edge artists like George Grosz and expressed himself artistically by creating collages.
In the 1920s, Blumenfeld married Dutch-born Lena Citroen, moved to Amsterdam and opened a store selling handbags. Fortuitously there was a darkroom on the second floor and he began devoting more time to photography, shooting photos of customers and displaying them in the store window. The photos he did in the next few years Blumenfeld himself thought were some of the best of his life – lots of artistic experimentation that was inspired to some degree by the work of photographer Man Ray.
Blumenfeld, his wife, and children, eventually moved to Paris and came to the attention of fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, and through him made the connection to doing photos for Vogue Paris starting in 1939. His images for Vogue were strikingly different and announced that fashion photography was going to be influenced by this artist for years to come.
But WWII radically changed his life and circumstances. As a German in France, at the beginning of the war, he was interned in a camp for aliens. He was released when Vichy France surrendered to the Germans and then worked to obtain visas for himself and his family to travel to the United States in 1941. During the trip, the ship was stopped in Casablanca and they were interned by Vichy France as Jews in a camp in Morocco. Blumenfeld and his family finally arrived in the US in August of 1941.
Before he left, Blumenfeld asked a friend to look after his photographs and when he returned in 1947 after the war he discovered his early work had indeed been safeguarded and preserved.
Once in the US, Blumenfeld showed his photos to Harper’s Bazaar and his rise as a professional photographer was meteoric. He ended up shooting countless covers for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and introducing an artistic – and often abstract – look to fashion photography that was totally new. British photographer Rankin has pointed out that Blumenfeld photos from the period not only still look impressive even today, but that his iconic images are among of the most copied photographs in the world.
Erwin Blumenfeld was one of the most artistically-conscious photographers in the world of commercial photography. He was a rule breaker. In fact, the rules meant little to him. If you were supposed to keep a given type of film at a moderate temperature, he was likely to put it in the oven or freeze it – just so see what the effect on the emulsion might be. His innovations in style, lighting and composition went much farther than you’d see with his successful contemporaries like Irving Penn or Richard Avedon.
But an area in which Blumenfeld particularly excelled was in portraying the beauty of women. His love of beautiful women has been called an obsession. He not only created striking images of women, but he was able to relate to them extremely well – including his models – with a mix of charm, amiability, fun and subtle seductiveness. He loved women – and they tended to love him back. His models often said that they never felt so beautiful as when they were posing for Blumenfeld’s camera.
Above Covers by Erwin Blumenfeld
In the 1960s, Blumenfeld began making fashion films, creating the same kind of beauty in motion that he was able to achieve in stills. This films were way ahead of their time, and certainly way ahead of the commercials of the time. Again, there is nothing dated about his fashion film work. It still looks beautiful and innovative to this day.
But fashion changes with time and by the late 1960s Erwin Blumenfeld was no longer at the forefront of his field. Styles in photography had changed and younger photographers were taking the place of the photographic stars of the recent past. Blumenfeld himself was aging – after all, he didn’t really become a successful photographer until age 44 – and he seemed to have a real dread of getting old.
Erwin Blumenfeld died of a heart attack in July of 1969 in circumstances some have surmised that his death was essentially a suicide, although not all family members agree. He was in Rome, had not been taken his heart medication and ran up and down the Spanish Steps on a hot day. He died soon after.
But afterward, family dynamics and inability to agree on a united strategy lead to his work and career falling into relative obscurity. All of this changed not long ago when his grandchildren got together to remind the world of what Erwin Blumenfeld had meant to photography, both in terms of fashion and of photographic art. His photos are now being published and exhibited in museums and his reputation is being reestablished.
For information and resources check out www.erwinblumenfeld.com. Read more about
Erwin Blumenfeld in his own words: EYE TO I: The Autobiography of a Photographer
A book was published in 1996 by William Ewing called Erwin Blumenfeld; Photographs: A Passion for Beauty and a number of other books featuring his photos are available as well.
There have been few photographers whose personalities, conflicts and aspirations have been as complex as that of Erwin Blumenfeld. From the very beginning, along with photographers like Man Ray and Alfred Steiglitz, he was convinced photography could be a fine art and throughout his career, he was very aware of the conflict between art and commerce and did his best to make his commercial work as seriously artistic as he could.
Erwin Blumenfeld was a great photographer – and a highly interesting, conflicted and complex artist. He deserves to be recognized for his groundbreaking work and to be celebrated as one of the foremost photographers in history.
Bill Dobbins is a is a veteran photographer and videographer, based in Los Angeles, who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries, and published eight books, including two fine art photo books: