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

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
An iceberg in Ilulissat, Greenland; researchers have been studying the phenomena of the melting glaciers and their long-term ramifications for the rest of the world (Getty)
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Jackman bears his claws and loses the plot in X-Men movie 'The Wolverine'
Arts and Entertainment
'Knowledge is power': Angelina Jolie has written about her preventive surgery
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Fashion

    Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

    £6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

    Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

    £12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

    Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

    £32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

    Day In a Page

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing