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Fashion: Obsessions

Erwin Blumenfeld had many lives, from ambulance driver to Dadaist, but his obsessive pursuit of 'The Eternal Woman' made him one of this century's greatest fashion photographers. By William Ewing
In the 1940s and 1950s, the name of Blumenfeld was synonymous with high fashion throughout Europe and America. Scores of his images adorned the covers of Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, House & Garden and a dozen other beauty and fashion magazines of the period. In one year alone, a Blumenfeld appeared on American Vogue's bi-weekly cover every month.

Erwin Blumenfeld is known today for only a handful of these marvellous mid-century fashion photographs, perennial favourites among those of us with an insatiable appetite for photographic postcards and posters. They are justly treasured for their inventiveness, their graphic economy, and their wit. There is something intrinsic to a Blumenfeld: it retains its magic while most fashion photographs of the period have sunk without trace.

This is partly because he didn't take the fashion industry all that seriously, and was thus able to retain his lightness of touch. As a 16-year-old in Berlin, he had worked as an apprentice for a women's clothing concern. Any illusions he had about fashion being glamorous were quickly dispelled, as he recalled in his memoirs:

"On the second day, I had to help Mr Wolfsberg squeeze five models into their over-tight white drill smocks. That was no child's play - it took the strength and skill of at least two strong men. Models did not starve themselves the way they do today; there was no fashion photography, nor were there any reducing pills. The full figure was in style."

This early experience would give Blumenfeld the self-confidence to experiment with his photography, never fearful that he would represent the clothing incorrectly. He could always identify a well-made garment and while he had the utmost respect for a good designer, such as Charles James or Balenciaga, he mocked the pretensions of lesser designers and their apologists - the editors and art directors, or "arse directors" as he insisted on calling them whenever his imagery was called into question.

Blumenfeld became a fashion photographer belatedly, at 41. He had seen the horrors of war as a German army ambulance driver, and thereafter lived in exile in Holland, never quite sure where the next guilder was coming from.

He had taken up art, in a Dadaist vein, and the production of collages, drawings and paintings taught him the importance of considering every detail in a picture. Lessons learned earlier, in childhood, were also to inform his photography: he was particularly enamoured of the Old Masters, learning from Cranach, for example, how nakedness could be all the more erotic when partly hidden by transparent veils.

But, most importantly, it was his underlying obsession with "Woman" - "that being which projects the most shadow or the most light in our dreams", as Baudelaire put it, which unifies Blumenfeld's work and gives it depth. It was the classic German obsession that posited "Woman" as the next great "riddle" or "mystery" which had to be solved. Blumenfeld had begun photographing women, as portraits and nudes, years before becoming a professional fashion photographer; when French Vogue finally opened its portals to him in late 1938, he was able to bring to his fashion assignments skills he had acquired during these years of trial and error.

If Blumenfeld had any ambivalence about fashion photography, he kept it to himself. "Fact is," he admitted at the peak of his career in 1955, "I eat regularly and rather well." Moreover, he recognised the extraordinary historical circumstances in which he lived, as he once explained to an interviewer: "The influence of photographers on the life of this world is much stronger than the Old Masters could ever have dreamt of... Every magazine page is seen by millions of people, and we are responsible for the tastes of tomorrow. Our pictures are the essence of a page, and every page has to have its own face, its own spirit, to catch millions of eyes, as otherwise it is only a scrap of paper"

'Blumenfeld: A Fetish for Beauty', by William A Ewing, is published by Thames & Hudson, 9 September, pounds 40