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The work of Erwin Blumenfeld (Berlin, 1897–Rome, 1969) illustrates the artistic career of one of the greatest fashion photographers of the 20th century and the socio-political context of the interwar era. A large part of the exhibition at the Jeu de Paume is devoted, notably, to the period when, first in Paris, then in New York, he took fashion and advertising photographs. Often minimalist, mainly in colour, these photographs testify to his ceaseless desire to experiment.
The exhibition reunites all the media used by Blumenfeld through a long career marked by immigration: drawing, photography, photomontage and collage. Now become classics, the motifs of his experimental black and white photographs are shown alongside numerous self-portraits and portraits, as well as his fashion photographs.
Blumenfeld was influenced by Dada in his youth, multiplying special effects (superimpositions, double exposures, multiplications) as can be seen in his graphic research and his collages, and later his portraits and his photographs for fashion and advertising. During his period spent in Amsterdam, where he was exiled at the end of World War I, Blumenfeld began to carry out photographic experiments in the laboratory. At the same time he was interested in writing and painting. The images he created show a photographic appropriation specific to the reality of those years. Thus, for example, portraits emerge in which the theme of alienation is frequently present. In 1936, he settled in Paris, where he soon began to receive commissions for portraits, for fashion photos and advertising images. The artist produced variations on a single, unique theme, the woman.
The publication of his Surrealist portraits and experimental photographs in the magazines Verve and Minotaure gained him a circle of influential admirers. As early as 1938, he gained a contract with the French edition of Vogue and a year later began to work, briefly, in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar. From 1940 to 1941, Blumenfeld was interned as a “foreign enemy national”. On his liberation, he emigrated to the United States, where he worked until 1943 as a freelance photographer for numerous magazines. Over one hundred of his photographs were published as cover images in all the great fashion magazines, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Life, Look and Cosmopolitan. In fifteen or so years, Erwin Blumenfeld had in his way invented fashion photography. He shared a fashion photography studio with Martin Munkacsi until 1943, when he opened his own studio in New York.
In the mid 1950s, the photographer retired to devote himself to writing. However, his autobiography Eye to I, appeared only in 1975 in French (Jadis et Daguerre) and in 1999 in English. The exhibition will present almost 150 images, as well as magazines allowing the visitor to appreciate the importance of the magazine design and the influence of editors. Sound works reveal Blumenfeld’s radical use of the verb, while a slide show presents previously unseen small format images, taken outside the studio.
© Jeu de Paume.