Portfolio: Strike a pose

Friend of Dali, confidant of Dietrich, and the man who once defined the look of `Vogue', German photographer Horst P Horst has led an extraordinary, charmed life, and provided some of this century's landmark images

Horst P Horst's long career in photography was almost cut short just months after it had begun. Arriving in New York for the first time nearly 70 years ago, the young German (born Horst Bohrmann, in Lower Saxony, in 1906) was interned for two days as an undesirable alien. As a result, he found himself a full five minutes late for his Monday morning interview with Edna Woolman Chase, the formidable editor-in-chief of American Vogue. On telling her of his problems at Ellis Island, she replied with considerable sang-froid: "We have all been away for the weekend, you know," and dismissed him from her office.

Horst survived this incident to become an employee. Not long afterwards, however, he incurred the fury of the magazine's proprietor, Conde Nast, after failing to show due deference during a "discussion" of his work. The young photographer was sacked, took the boat back to France and, during the next decade, produced some of the most celebrated fashion pictures of the century for French Vogue. His dramatic lighting, his modernism (he had for a time assisted the architect Le Corbusier) and his twinkling charm were soon being emulated by many.

Before his ill-starred US trip, Horst had begun his career under the wing of French Vogue's volatile star photographer George Hoyningen-Huene. By 1934 he had taken over his former mentor's position, after a jealous Huene upended a half- finished meal over the magazine's art director and stormed out.

Horst stopped taking photographs only recently. He is 93 and nearly blind. He still lives in Oyster Bay, the home he bought on New York's Long Island Sound in the late Forties and where he has entertained successive generations of the beau monde

Far left: Lisa with harp, 1939

With her ability to invest photographs with a sense of movement, conveyed by gesture and expression, model Lisa Fonssagrives inspired Horst's most famous set of nudes: "One day I wanted to make some nude photographs, which I had never done before. She [Lisa] has a very beautiful body and was not afraid of it - she was used to Nachtcultur." Horst always tried to ensure his nudes of women looked romantic and to make some kind of effect, theatrical or otherwise. This picture caused the irate editor of Town and Country to call up Horst, apoplectic with rage, shouting that it was quite plain for all to see that the naked woman in Horst's photograph was his wife. Nina de Voe, 1951

This picture is among Horst's last for American Vogue editor Edna Woolman Chase. She was succeeded in 1952 by her deputy, Jessica Daves, under whom a rollercoaster of "Americana" - cheerful, cardiganed female students bicycling to doughnut shops - careered into Vogue's pages. Horst spent much of Daves' decade- long tenure travelling abroad and working for House and Garden (another Nast-owned magazine) before being asked back in 1962 to work with Daves' successor, the exotic Diana Vreeland. The photograph of Nina de Voe was one of the first Horst took in his new studio, which had belonged to the painter Tchelitchew, the unrequited love of Edith Sitwell's life.

Carmen, face massage advertisement, 1946

In the late Forties, Horst took on lucrative advertising contracts, partly because fashion houses and cosmetics companies were more receptive than magazines to his subtlety of lighting. Besides which, he needed the money to finance the building of his house in Oyster Bay. By the time this photograph of Carmen was taken, American Vogue was trying to forge a new identity for itself. This manifested itself in a slow abandonment of the past - not least the dramatically lit, studio-bound tableaux of the Thirties that Horst had so perfectly made his own signature style. In this photograph of Carmen, Horst had eliminated much of the artifice, props and extraneous material which had led Cecil Beaton to say that his photographs were "over- elaborate" - prefiguring a general shift to serenity, healthiness and daylight, though this is a studio approximation.

Dali costumes for Bacchanale, Paris, 1939

Salvador Dali and his waxed moustaches were approaching the height of their public fame when the master of surrealism collaborated with Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel to produce these costumes for Leonid Massine's ballet Bacchanale. The choreographer found them impractical and they were never used, but French Vogue ran the picture anyway. On the eve of war, it was the first time that Horst worked with Dali, whose sensibility and attention to eye- catching detail had a lasting influence on his work: "He had just broken with Surrealism," the photographer recalls. "He and Chanel came to the sitting to fit the costumes." Dali left Paris for New York in 1940, but after the war - during which he served as a US war photographer - he designed surrealist settings for more of Horst's fashion pictures. The two remained friends until the painter died in 1989.

`White Sleeve' with Doris Zelensky, Paris, 1936

This is the quintessential Horst photograph, taken for French Vogue, a hymn of praise to Thirties Modernism: uncluttered, perfectly lit. The balustrade is a theatrical prop, jutting out from nowhere in particular. As a close friend of Jean Cocteau and set designer and painter Christian Berard, Horst was greatly influenced by the theatre. Horst emphasised the linear dimensions of this suit by Robert Piguet to show that, though ready-to-wear, it was close-fitting enough to be almost demi-couture, real value for money from the Paris collections. Horst's model, Doris Zelensky, was a gifted amateur, like so many of the period, a White Russian emigre most likely in need of an income. "She knew how to wear dresses. I accentuated the important part of the dress and chose not to show the whole thing," he recalls.

Barefoot beauty, 1941

Horst found the world of magazines a strange place in which to begin a career, and none so peculiar or forbidding as American Vogue, where the female staff never took off their hats and gloves - models hardly existed, model agencies certainly didn't. In the New York office someone might telephone a girl, whom another colleague at Vogue thought it might be interesting or nice to photograph, and ask her to show up at the studio, inexperienced and terrified. Many turned out to be friends of the proprietor Conde Nast which Horst thought was probably just as well as Nast chose every photograph that appeared in the US edition of his magazine. By the time of this photograph, Horst had returned to US Vogue - Conde Nast had invited him back after their earlier fall-out. This tableau purports to show the dilemma of the modern woman, faced with a burgeoning market in beauty products for every part of her body, but in fact shows the dilemma faced by the photographer having to portray disembodied extremities - traditionally the ugliest part of the physique - in a new and amusing way. Influenced by his friend Salvador Dali, it was an affectionately satirical photograph, which became one of Horst's best known.

Marlene Dietrich, 1942

Horst, who claimed that Hollywood movie stars assumed the places left vacant by vanishing European royalty, had known Dietrich for a few years before this photograph was taken. On one occasion during the war, they dined together in New York in their American forces uniforms. Naturally, they both spoke German, which caused a minor diplomatic incident. Their conversation was continued in Dietrich's apartment, where the photographer was the first to hear the songs she had recorded to try to persuade the German troops on the Western Front to lay down their arms. Of this sitting, Horst recalls, "She came in wearing this terrible hat and, in that voice, said: `Remember von Sternberg's lighting,' " referring to her most famous director. He lit her with shadow under the nose and she would pull in her cheeks. "I moved the light down slightly below her face and made it softer, and all the wrinkles disappeared," he says. When she was making Kismet, Horst received a telegram from the set asking him to explain how he had lit this portrait.

Black bodice, 1948

Horst's 1939 study of a Mainbocher corset is one of the most famous fashion pictures of our century, an icon of style re-interpreted endlessly over the past 60 years (see the video which accompanies Madonna's Vogue for a contemporary reworking). The image here, however, is another version of a corset, less intricate than Mainbocher's design and certainly exposing more back than even pre- war French Vogue would have tolerated. "The last time I had taken a photograph of a corset," Horst recalls, "it was retouched because it was a bit too open on the side and they thought it too suggestive. Here, I said, `To hell with it' - I wanted to open it all the way. I thought it was more interesting to see the shape ..." The background to the photograph, a white sheet thrown over a length of rope, was, incidentally, a favourite motif of Horst's contemporary, Clifford Coffin, and first used by Coffin a couple of years previously for British Vogue.

Male nude, 1952

In 1992 Horst published Form, a book of his photographs of nudes that showed his lifelong enthusiasm for the sculptural and the graphically linear. His nudes, especially those of men, show a debt to the classical. Horst's early mentor, Hoyningen-Huene, published a book on the sculpture and marbles of ancient Greece, and undoubtedly a little of his taste rubbed off on his young protege. Fellow German Herbert List made a lifetime's career of documenting the sensibilities of nameless, thousand-year-old Greek sculptors in a barely concealed homoerotic manner. Horst knew him well - they were roughly the same age and were photographing at around the same time, but in different worlds. Fresh from an unfulfilling apprenticeship with Le Corbusier, Horst appeared in some of Huene's photographs as a model. His muscular physique, though youthful, was more pronounced than that of the kouroi (ancient images of Greek youths) both men admired, but Huene's portraits in the "Greek style" were judged as successes. "Both George and I had this extraordinary feeling about Greece," Horst explains. "The physical beauty of the men and women, the sun, the fresh air, the sea. We often tried to duplicate the lighting of the Acropolis at sunset." Horst's later nudes, like this one, were not so artfully contrived, but retain as their template the classical sculptures he discovered under Hoyningen-Huene's influence. `Horst P Horst', Hamiltons gallery, 13 Carlos Place, London W1 (0171-499 9494), 25 June to 31 August

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