Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969)

Finding a Camera and a New Career

New York Times
Friday, November 19, 1999

Photographic history is chock-full of people who were painters before they became photographers, but very few were in women's wear to begin with. Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969), a name to conjure with in fashion photography, worked in the garment trade, later owned a leather goods shop and was also an artist before he became a photographer. The camera must have come as something of a relief, for Blumenfeld had a ripe talent for photography, a minor one for painting and none whatsoever for handbags.

He opened his shop in Amsterdam after World War I and immediately did so badly at the business game that desperation drove him into the arms of art. In "Eye to I" (Thames and
a photomontage of Hitler, circa 1934, by Erwin Blumenfeld [Ubu Gallery]
Hudson), an autobiography laced with anger, irony, sex and puns (Blumenfeld recounts being squeezed at birth through the Bearing Straits), he wrote that he painted because he couldn't draw.

Then he found a camera and a darkroom that the previous tenant had left in his store, and as his business went down the drain persuaded a few women who came in to let him make portraits of them (and occasionally nudes) instead. New portraits went into his shop window each morning among the crocodile extravagances, and lo, a photographer was born.

All three of his professions are on view in New York right now, some in rather more detail than others. "Erwin Blumenfeld: Collages 1916-1934," at the Ubu Gallery, presents 40 collages, most of them done in Amsterdam and several of them on the letterhead (or with the logo) of the Fox Leather Company, his leather goods enterprise. The James Danziger Gallery's "Erwin Blumenfeld: Nudes" has a small selection, 15 to be exact, of his photographs of female nudes, a subject that preoccupied him. For the full variety of Blumenfeld's nudes, there is "The Naked and the Veiled: The Photographic Nudes of Erwin Blumenfeld" (Thames and Hudson), by Yorick Blumenfeld, the photographer's son.

Collage was devised by inventive and adventurous artists who already had their artistic bona fides, but as a relatively easy technique it went on to rescue a few who had no great facility for drawing and painting. Photography, come to think of it, has done the same, and both media assisted Erwin Blumenfeld, a self- styled Sunday painter, to reach the more respectable days of the week.

Several of his collages were drawn in a style that refers to German Expressionism, with added photographic elements, as in "Cat Woman," a shambling drawing of a distorted nude whose head is a photograph of a snarling cat with roughly painted hair. Others proceed from a rapid and rather clever, cartoonish drawing style and sometimes make visual puns, as "Smokers" does with a pen-and-ink cigarette spouting photographic smoke that actually comes from a distant factory.

More pointed is a 1921 drawing of Charlie Chaplin, positioned as if crucified, with the Star of David in the sky and the word "religion" written in red. Chaplin was a symbol of the persecuted Jew to more than one German artist, and Blumenfeld himself had experienced virulent anti-Semitism in Germany. Blumenfeld never made high claims for his collages, but some of them are charming or historically interesting, and a couple of montages have real impact.

He grew up in Berlin and knew the Berlin Dadaists. Dada was meant to be a knockout blow against the establishment, the bourgeoisie and the rational order that had sent millions of young men to the slaughter in World War I. Blumenfeld already nurtured a vivid animus for the bourgeois ideals of his parents, and his stint as an ambulance driver during the war gave him a lasting respect for irrationality. He elected himself co-president of the Amsterdam branch of Dada, the other president being the only other member.

For his very first photograph, at the age of 10, he had assembled a still ife that would have done a collagist, or a Dadaist, proud, with Michelangelo's Moses holding a half-peeled potato and a toothbrush in his lap and Blumenfeld's brother resting his lead on an upturned chamber pot, 'wearing," as the photographer reported, "Mama's pince-nez and Pa-Pa's mustache- trainer, and clutching Vlama's rolled-up corset in his fist."

Collage was frequently pressed nto the service of politics in Germany; in the Netherlands, Blumenfeld attacked Hitler with a few high-potency montages. (A montage superimposes photographic negatives during printing; a collage is cut and pasted.) In 1936 he printed an image of a half-draped classical torso opped by a beady-eyed calf's head and called it "The Dictator."

He was even more direct with double- or triple-printed images of the Fuhrer's face combined with a skull; three variants are at Ubu. One version with a jagged hole for a nose, one blank eye socket and a gaping line of teeth was exhibited in Paris in 1937 but had to be withdrawn because the German Ambassador was so incensed by it. The Germans got to see it anyway. The United States Air Force dropped millions of copies of this photograph over German cities in 1943.

In 1936, when the handbags had finally emptied his wallet, Blumenfeld moved to Paris in hopes of becoming a fashion photographer and earning a pretty penny. In 1937 and 1938 some of his photographs, including some nudes, were published in the first two issues of Verve, the art magazine that was itself a work of art, and in 1938 his fashion career began at Vogue.

Blumenfeld had begun photographing nudes in Amsterdam. In Paris, and for the rest of his life, he fully indulged his desire to acclaim "the eternal feminine ... the fetishes of my life: eyes, hair, breasts, mouth." He was as obsessed with the nude as Edward Weston, but he came out of a European experimental tradition and subjected the body to an astonishing number of photographic tricks. Perhaps the simplest of these became the best known, a nude under wet silk, which illustrates his boyhood discovery that Botticelli and Cranach had rendered their nudes even more naked by covering them with transparent veils.

Even the small selection at Danziger makes clear that Blumenfeld's photographic setups were composed with infinite care. He positioned a model's head to look as if it were attached to the neck of a stone torso. He arranged a pattern of shadows that striped a body almost into invisibility. He posed a woman lying on her side, facing the bottom of the frame, and photographed her from above so she looked as if she were falling through the air.

In the arrangements and then again in the darkroom, he went to such lengths that it can be almost impossible to tell how the picture was made, and the contrivance occasionally overshadows the subject. Still, he was a wizard. What appears to be the shadow of a model's profiled torso is actually her left breast and rib cage; lighting and perhaps photographic development have flattened and darkened this part of her body.

He photographed a nude through a perforated screen. He frequently solarized his prints, turning on a light during development to create tone reversals and dark outlines. He treated an elegant, Ingresesque nude back this way, then exhibited the negative as well; it is even lovelier and certainly more ghostly.

Blumenfeld spent two years in French concentration camps during World War II before being released and managing to get to the United States. He was convinced that his photographs were art, and the artistic and experimental component in his work earned him a hugely successful career as a fashion photographer; in 1950 the failed leather goods man was said to be the highest- paid photographer in the world. So in the end, Erwin Blumenfeld put all three of his careers together - women's wear, art and photography.

Photo: A photomontage of Hitler, circa 1934, by Erwin Blumenfeld.

"Erwin Blumenfeld: Collages 1916-1934" is at the IJbu Gallery, 16 East 78th Street, Manhattan, (212) 794-4444, through Dec. 23. "Erwin Blumenfeld: Nudes" is at the James Danziger Gallery, 851 Madison Avenue, near 71st Street, (212) 734-5300, through Nov. 27.


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