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Erwin Blumenfeld: Fashion photography and the challenge of Dadaism

Erwin Blumenfeld: Fashion photography and the challenge of Dadaism

Until April 14, FOAM presents a retrospective of color works by the German fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld (1897–1969). The exhibition retraces a pioneering oeuvre, which continues to inform the imagination of fashion photography.

Beginnings marked by Dadaism

Erwin Blumenfeld’s life offers a number of clues to the understanding of his oeuvre and his photographic language. His first camera, received at the age of 10, afforded him the “discovery of chemical magic, the play of light and shade…” There followed a period of activity in the Dutch Dada movement (of which, with Paul Citroën, he was the self-proclaimed head from 1918). During that time, the artist produced several works under the pseudonym of Jan Bloomfield, including collages, writings, and photomontages. His first steps in art and photography were thus marked by experiments with chemistry, color contrasts, and the use of collage, which foreshadowed his signature style and formal and editorial experimentation.

Variant of the photograph published in Vogue US August 1st 1950 p63 ©The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

The 1940s–60s: The advent of color

Although known above all for his black-and-white photographs (Sur la Tour Eiffel, 1938), in the 1940s, when he had moved to New York, Blumenfeld perfected his use of color. With the support of Cecil Beaton who admired his work, Blumenfeld became a regular contributor to such magazines as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Life, Cosmopolitan, etc. He made portraits of iconic celebrities, including Audrey Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Grace Kelly, and created some of the most memorable covers: like the Red Cross cover for Vogue in 1945 and the Doe Eye, again for Vogue, in 1949. Erwin Blumenfeld’s success—he had quickly become the best-paid photographer of his time—stemmed from his impatience to shed the codes of commercial photography. 

“Rage of color”, Look, October 15th, 1958. (models from left to right : Renée Breton, Tess Mall, Dolores Hawkins, Anne St. Marie, Bani Yelverton) © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

Pioneering a radical approach

Guided by his taste for the avant-garde and by his European culture, the photographer refused to follow the industry specifications in order to do something new. Blumenfeld’s style means decentering the promoted product, using fresh, unknown models (he was among the first to pose a black fashion model), and applying graphic techniques in combination with forms and colors (solarization, fragmentation, slide show, etc.). In the preface to his biography of Blumenfeld, François Cheval sums the artist’s work as follows: “The audacity of posing and cropping goes hand in hand with the austerity of the composition. In the end, he couldn’t care less for the object of his commission, the piece of clothing. He subverts this object. And that’s the whole fun of it.”

Blumenfeld’s radical, experimental approach inspired many photographers who followed in his footsteps, from Guy Bourdin to Warren du Preez…

Pat Blake for Vogue NY, 1954 © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

Untitled (model : Susan Jenks), circa 1946 © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld 
Minaudière Evans. Earrings Ledo. Bracelet Henri Bendel (model : Victoria von Hagen). > Variant opf the photograph published in the article “The Same Face” in Vogue US, October 15th, 1952, p.56 © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

By Sophie Puig

Erwin Blumenfeld

From February 15 to April 14, 2019

Foam Fotografiemuseum, Keizersgracht 609, 1017 DS, Amsterdam

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