“Day and night I try, in my studio with its six two-thousand watt suns, balancing between the extremes of the impossible, to shake loose the real from the unreal, to give visions body, to penetrate into unknown transparencies.” – Erwin Blumenfeld
Erwin Blumenfeld was a American-German photographer best known for his editorial photographs, experimental fine art works, and portraits of cultural icons. Born on January 26, 1897 in Berlin, Germany. He got his first camera in 1908, teaching himself the mechanics of photography and how to navigate a darkroom.
In 1913, once he was old enough to work, Blumenfeld was an apprentice to dressmaker Moses and Schlochauer, but soon after he was drafted as an ambulance driver in World War I.
As the war came to a close, Blumenfeld moved to Amsterdam, where he married Lena Citroen — the niece of his good friend, the Dadaist artist Paul Citroen — and had three children.
In 1922 he had embarked on a business venture as the owner of Fox Leather Company, a store specialising in handbags located on Kalverstraat, a major shopping street in Amsterdam. “This is where he took portraits of customers, using a darkroom in the back of the store,” Kooiman explained. “He experimented with a lot of negatives, and the darkroom process marks the importance in Blumenfeld’s work of the finishing in the lab.”
His years in Amsterdam marked a productive period in his photographic career, though his leather business eventually flopped and went bankrupt.
In 1918 he went to Amsterdam, where he came into contact with Paul Citroen and Georg Grosz. In 1933, he made a photomontage showing Hitler as a skull with a swastika on its forehead; this image was later used in Allied propaganda material in 1943.
Following World War I, the artist began working professionally and garnered international attention for his portraits of artists Henri Matisse and Georges Rouault. He moved to Paris, where in 1936 he set up as a photographer.
To start anew, he and his family moved to Paris in 1936. Blumenfeld received portrait commissions of artists such as Henri Matisse and Georges Roualt, entertainer Josephine Baker, cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert and fashion photographer Cecil Beaton were among his other subjects. Beaton was highly impressed by Blumenfeld’s images published in the French magazines Photographie and Verve. So impressed, that he connected him with French Vogue, where Blumenfeld then worked on contract.
In 1937, he began working for French Vogue, and became well-known around the world for his shoots with Josephine Baker and Carmen Dell’Orefice.
But everything came to a halt once the Nazis occupied France, placing Blumenfeld in the internment camps Le Vernet and Catus due to his Jewish heritage. He eventually managed to flee with his family to New York City in 1941.
Despite the uncertainty and constant fear looming over him during these years, he maintained his artistic resilience. What’s truly outstanding is that despite life’s hardships, nothing ever diminished his creative imagination. “It does explain the sinister side to his work; he had seen and experienced too much to take the American glamour for granted and he played with that in his work, but with humour without it ever becoming depressing.” Kooiman explained.
In the post-World War II era, he soon became a successful and well-paid fashion photographer, and worked as a free-lancer for Harper’s Bazaar, Life and American Vogue and a variety of publications including Seventeen, Glamour and House & Garden.
During this period, he also worked a photographer for the Oval Room of the Dayton Department Store in Minneapolis and produced advertising campaign for cosmetics clients such as Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and L’Oreal. He became the highest paid photographer in the world and in high demand for editorial photo shoots.
Blumenfeld introduced colour into his oeuvre and became sought-after by the fashion and beauty worlds for his original take on the female form and artistic montages of clothing.
One of his images at Foam features four gloved hands belonging to one elegantly accessorised woman but this detail might not be apparent at first glance. In another shot, five women posing behind prism-hued panels wear dresses matching the shades of these partitions.
His friendship with Dadaists such as Man Ray and George Grosz impacted how he experimented with photography and his life experiences as well as others in the surrealist movement enormously influencing Blumenfeld.
In some of his prints, models heads and bodies were repeated in the composition like a mirror effect, and on a Vogue cover, Blumenfeld retained only the eyebrow, eye, lips and a mole of a model’s face.
While in Europe, Blumenfeld shot in black and white, but it’s his kaleidoscopic photography that forms the subject of a new exhibition at Foam in Amsterdam: “Erwin Blumenfeld in Colour — His New York Years.”
While producing commissioned work for fashion houses and magazines, he surreptitiously incorporated references to avant-garde art. He was one of the first to realise that fashion photography was not just about displaying the latest fashion, but about creating iconic images.”
Celebrities like actresses Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly also started calling at his studio on Central Park South. By the 1950s it was reported that Blumenfeld was one of the highest paid photographers in the world. The American magazine The New Yorker described Blumenfeld as “one of the most stylish photographers of the twentieth century” in a 2014 issue.
Almost 50 years after his death in July 1969 his lively interpretations of fashion — without the additions of instant filters and Photoshop — still continue to incite awe, just as they did in Amsterdam many decades ago in his old leather goods shop on Kalverstraat. Today, however, they’re in a museum on Keizersgracht.