New York

Erwin Blumenfeld, Vogue Paris, Eiffel Tower, May 1939, gelatin silver print, 11 3/8 x 8 3/4". © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld.

Erwin Blumenfeld, Vogue Paris, Eiffel Tower, May 1939, gelatin silver print, 11 3/8 x 8 3/4". © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld.

Erwin Blumenfeld

Edwynn Houk Gallery | New York

Erwin Blumenfeld, Vogue Paris, Eiffel Tower, May 1939, gelatin silver print, 11 3/8 x 8 3/4". © The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld.

Vogue Paris, Eiffel Tower, May 1939 is Erwin Blumenfeld’s most famous fashion photograph. After moving to New York in 1941 to escape the Nazis, the German-born photographer contributed extensively, and for decades, to an international array of Condé Nast publications including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The model in the aforementioned image, dressed in a glorious white gown billowing like the wings of an angel or a dove, evokes the famous Hellenistic sculpture Winged Victory of Samothrace, which resides on a staircase in the Louvre in Paris. Blumenfeld’s female figure reflects a singular historical importance and poignancy, as the symbol of a defiant Paris, which held her own before falling to the German army in June of the following year. The photographer’s elegantly clothed model—a haute bourgeois figure, slim and self-possessed—also has a certain affinity with Delacroix’s full-bodied, half-naked Liberty Leading the People, 1830. Both lead the people, if those of different classes. Blumenfeld’s work reminds us that fashion photography is class specific, and that the fashion model embodies a bourgeois ideology. Blumenfeld’s Winged Victory cannot really fly; she’s only posing. She evokes the power of a grand illusion, which is to say a delusion of grandeur. Fashion photography is not about the so-called decisive moment, but rather about creating a spurious present.

As Goethe famously wrote, “The eternal feminine leads us on.” His ideal not only saved Faust from the devil but also inspired the writer. This archetype recurs in Blumenfeld’s photographs, more often than not as embodied by a particular person rather than an anonymous mannequin. Though he earned his living making fashion images, he maintained a studio practice in the name of art rather than commerce. Untitled Nude, Paris, ca. 1937, and Untitled Nude, New York, ca. 1952—as well as the many untitled and undated nudes made in the years between—are completely at odds with the photographs Blumenfeld made for Vogue Paris, which were slick, dutiful contributions to the conventions of contemporary fashion. Rather, these images seem to contain their own aesthetic, even avant-garde intentions, as indicated by the experimental use of solarization in some, and of Surrealist montage in others. Blumenfeld’s references suggest an awareness of and an interest in both psychoanalysis and Surrealism. His hybrid compositions often ingeniously symbolize the phallic woman and the primal scene, and remind us that photographs, like memories, are fraught with unconscious meaning. The Minotaur or the Dictator, 1936, a female nude with a bull’s head, was made the year after Picasso’s La Minotauromachie (Minotauromachy)and three years after the Surrealist magazine Minotaure was first published.

Aesthetically speaking, Blumenfeld’s pictures are an exquisite testimony to the fact that photography is fundamentally about the elemental tension between light and dark. In his brilliant Portrait of Cecil Beaton, ca. 1940s, the famous fashion photographer’s head is almost entirely obscured. Beaton stares at us with one eye, illuminated by a sliver of white light, while his silhouette is framed by a dazzling white aura. While Blumenfeld toed the still-relevant line between art and commerce, like many of his peers he was fully immersed in the philosophies of experimental thinking at that time and dedicated to distilling and harnessing the fundamental attributes of his medium.

Donald Kuspit