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.
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.
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…
By Sophie Puig
From February 15 to April 14, 2019
Foam Fotografiemuseum, Keizersgracht 609, 1017 DS, Amsterdam