how erwin blumenfeld changed nude photography

He was once the highest paid photographer in the world, had a fascination with nudity and found shame thrilling. Erwin Blumenfeld, and his influence on contemporary photography should not be forgotten.

by Greg French
21 May 2015, 7:20pm

On the first page of his autobiography, Eye to I, Erwin Blumenfeld describes his fate as moving "from dark-room to dark-room." It's a poignant opener for the often un-sung German photographer, whose life was a troubled one. By the time of his death on July 4, 1969, Erwin had lived through two world wars, been placed in two concentration camps and fathered two children, amongst a handful of intimate relationships. He'd learned four languages - a necessary step to survive the move through Germany, Holland, France and America. But most importantly, for the legacy of his 30,000 negatives, 8,000 black and white prints, and some dozen fashion films, Erwin had found something that allowed him to live far longer than his own 73 years: a camera.

Erwin grew up in Berlin's middle class, Jewish world, which was part of the melting pot of cosmopolitan modernity that was bubbling up at the turn of the 20th Century, and the golden age of German-Jewish society. It was the time of the first airplane ride, the first telephone, the first color process advancements. But it was a world that was quickly taken away from him. Thrust into national service, Erwin was exposed to the horrors of the First World War. Decaying bodies, amputees and brothel-work became his surroundings in the two years prior to his twentieth birthday. And it was during this time as well that he was to lose his beloved brother in the war, his father to syphilis and his mother, after betraying him to the German army. "Better dead in the trenches than a traitor," she'd remarked, after discovering his attempts to desert the war.

Returning to Berlin disillusioned, Erwin threw himself into the effervescent lifestyle of café culture, a world of artists, painters, and poets as documented by Christopher Isherwood and Cabaret; it was here he met the Dada artist George Grosz, and discovered the work of Man Ray. It was during this time that he was to become head of the Dutch Dada movement - a humorous and over-glorified title, given the movement comprised of just himself and his best friend. 

"He was told by an aunt when he was growing up that he looked very Jewish", explains Remy Blumenfeld - Erwin's grandson, and director of The Thinking Violets' biographical documentary The Man That Shot Beautiful Women. There's a familiar look in his own eyes to that of Erwin's in the photos he shows me - a trait that is often highlighted by the people he grew up with. "He looked very Jewish; he was almost killed for looking Jewish. All of those things came together, not liking how he looked in the looking glass, and at the same time, a fascination with mirrors. It's how he learned to understand beauty."

It was also his fascination with the women in his life that was to play a key role in both his work and the trajectory of his personal life. His time in Berlin was to birth that obsession - a hint of flesh at a peep show, a sense of eroticism to the act of undressing, a glimpse of his governess' legs. No doubt the inclusion of those many mirrors and optical screens that are so crucial in his work hinted at the allure of the voyeur. Indeed in Holland at the time, it was widely seen as taboo to have your curtains closed, and in a sense still is in Amsterdam - suggestive of the fact that you had something to hide. "He found shame thrilling" Remy says, "and he imbued that into his images. For him it was about transformation. That was very important to him."

In 1936 Erwin moved to Paris, and ended up photographing Cecil Beaton, who in turn secured him a contract with French Vogue. But, as the Second World War came to France, Erwin was forced to flee his home in Paris. Leaving behind all his work in a single suitcase - which he trusted to an acquaintance - he moved to America, fleeing the possibility of a German victory and a return to the concentration camps. "Look at those photos. There are hundreds he took throughout that time. That's when you see the pain. In some pictures you see the head of a cow on the body of a mannequin, or Hitler. There are pictures with pain and anger but these are an exception. They're not in the realms of fashion."

But it was to be his fashion work that provided the greatest escape from those pain-stricken years, and a playground for Erwin's compulsion to study beauty and the feminine. Here, his soldiers were replaced with women, his bodily fractures conjured with colorful tricks of the light, and his own pained reflection replaced with another's smile. Certainly, he found pleasure in making women feel beautiful, often asking them "will you marry me?" at the point of taking the photo, so as to capture a moment of intimacy between sitter and photographer.

Upon arrival in America, Erwin forged a visual dialect that was to define the post war era on the pages of Harpers Bazaar and American Vogue. A continued focus on experimentation in the darkroom using techniques such as solarization, and employing sporadic, unpredictable measures of developing solution, saw the production of iconic images and covers such as "Grace Kelly framed in gold" and the "doe eye". It's an image that is copied and reinterpreted to this day - most recently by Solve Sundsbø as part of a fashion film for Chanel - a medium that Erwin himself pioneered whilst working for Dayton's department store. These films and images, often cited by some of the world's leading photographers, including Nick Knight and Rankin, form some of most revered work.

On July 4, 1969, whilst Erwin was in Rome, he ran up and down the Spanish Steps in the searing midday heat - inducing a heart attack, having deliberately chosen not to take his heart medication. "I remember very clearly my father disappearing from our July 4th party to go to Rome", recalls Remy. "I remember the distress around that whole event." Erwin died with his lover, Marina Schinz, that same day. His death, whilst widely accepted by his family as suicide, remains a mystery.

Great pieces of work exist throughout history because of the stories they tell. Erwin's work leads very clearly by that example - and earned him the title of the world's highest paid photographer in the middle of the twentieth century. From pleasure to pain, the dazzling array of images he captured are unbound by time, but they aren't just timeless. They also tell the emotional journey of a true artist who had achieved so much in the face of adversity. "All of his work is about his journey and about him. All of it. It cannot be seen in isolation", Remy says. "My Grandfather's story is one of constant reinvention - and in a world far more difficult than which we live in."


Text Greg French
Images courtesy The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

Erwin Blumenfeld