Friday, 7 June 2013

Erwin Blumenfeld exhibition at Somerset House

One of the great things about London is that there is always something you can do for free, and one of my personal favourite freebies is the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House. From the Rolling Stones to Tim Walker, it has played host to some fantastic, diverse exhibitions.

Blumenfeld Studio: New York 1941-1960 features work by Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century, in particular the work he produced in America during and after WWII from his Central Park studio. Over 90 original modern prints have been fully restored in colour and are displayed alongside original publication clippings.

Spring Fashion 1953 for Vogue ©The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

Born in Berlin in 1897, Blumenfeld originally worked as an apprentice dressmaker. It wasn’t until he left for Paris in 1936 that his photography career began to take shape. In a twist of fate, his work was seen and admired by the great Cecil Beaton which led to a commission for French Vogue.

Blumenfeld left for America in 1941 and his career quickly snowballed, with subsequent commissions for Harper’s Bazaar, Seventeen and House & Garden. His work between 1941 and 1960 is the focus of this exhibition and includes fashion photography, portraits, personal work, ‘war effort’ propaganda posters and advertising work for clients such as Max Factor and Helena Rubenstein.

The East Wing Galleries is a really nice exhibition space, with white walls and small intersecting rooms which provide an ideal blank canvas and an interesting way of organising groups of images as you progress through the space.

My favourite aspect of this particular exhibition is the addition of display cases featuring original copies of publications like Vogue and Harpers Bazaar, allowing you to see the context in which the images were used. As a magazine journalist I found it fascinating to see his large prints on the wall and to then see how they were manipulated for use on a magazine cover.

Like many photographers, Blumenfeld wanted total control over the way his images were reproduced wherever possible, and he forged strong relationships with Art Directors in order to achieve this. His enduring relationship with Alexander Liberman and US Vogue saw him shoot over fifty covers, and I was immediately struck by how creatively his images were used for this purpose. They appear much more experimental than the mostly formulaic covers you see today and I was left wondering if editors had more artistic freedom half a century ago or if they were equally pressured by external constraints.

Certainly Blumenfeld is an experimental photographer, embracing photomontage, solarisation and colour slides to create his distinctive images. He viewed his photography as art, even if it was created for commercial purposes, and like all great artists he pushed bounderies and challenged conventions.

For fans of photography, fashion and the history of magazines, I thoroughly recommend this exhibition. A trip to Somerset House is always a pleasure and a visit to the East Wing Galleries won’t cost you a penny. You can’t really argue with that can you!

Blumenfeld Studio: New York 1941-1960 is at the East Wing Galleries until 1 September 2013. For more information visit

Grace Kelly 1955 for Cosmopolitan ©The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

Lilian Macusson for the cover of American Vogue January 1951 ©The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld

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