Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) was one of the greatest innovators of twentieth century photography. From his early black and white nudes to his colourful and glossy fashion photography of the 1950s and 60s, he consistently pushed both stylistic and technical boundaries.
Surrealist Nude, New York, 1945
Erwin Blumenfeld was born in Berlin in 1897 to a middle-class Jewish family. He was given his first camera at the age of ten, as a gift from his uncle. As a teenager he regularly experimented with photography. He became involved with the German Dadaist circle after the First World War, after befriending George Grosz. Blumenfeld began to experiment with collage, often combining his own photographs with magazine cuttings.
In 1921, Blumenfeld married Lena Citroën, and together with their new baby daughter, Lisette, moved to Zandvoort in Holland in 1923. In Holland, Blumenfeld set up a small shop, where he discovered a fully equipped darkroom behind a boarded up door, left by the previous owner. He began to photograph his customers and quickly became an active part of the Dutch art scene. Blumenfeld was hugely influenced by Man Ray, and began his own experiments in his darkroom, using techniques such as multiple exposures and solarisation. He started to exhibit his work in his shop as well as holding two solo shows with the art dealer Carel van Lier.
His work was published in the French magazine Photographie in 1935 and the first issue of Verve magazine in 1937. This exposure lead to an introduction to French Vogue by the legendary photographer, Cecil Beaton. One of Blumenfeld’s most iconic images appeared in Vogue in 1939 an unharnessed Lisa Fonssagrives, dress billowing, balancing atop the Eiffel Tower, Paris.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Blumenfeld happened to meet a model with whom he had previously worked. In his return for his gramophone and all of his records, he asked her to keep his work safe. Blumenfeld was interned at several concentration camps during the Second World War. On release, he concentrated all of his efforts on obtaining a visa to escape to America. He succeeded in June 1941, and set sail across the Atlantic. In New York, Blumenfeld went on to work for Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue. His model acquaintance returned every single piece of his work in 1947.
His highly stylistic fashion photography helped shape the look of the 1940s and 50s. His first double-page spread was in 1944, and featured his daughter Lisette’s legs. One of his most dramatic and experimental fashion shots reduced his model Jean Patchett to a pair of lips, a beauty spot, and one single eye. It was used as the cover of Vogue in 1950, and is now considered one of the magazine’s most iconic covers.
Blumenfeld died on the 4th of July 1969 after self-inducing a heart attack. He did not take his heart medicine before repeatedly running up and down the Spanish steps in Rome.