Erwin Blumenfeld, today’s Classic Photographer, was a near unknown to me – but lucky me, it’s a fashion photographer mostly known for his work in the 40’s and 50’s. Apart from that, he’s also known for being an experimenter and I do love those!
Erwin Blumenfeld was born in Berlin on the 26th of January 1897 to a Jewish family. He had a younger brother, Heinz (who was killed in action in the First World War), and an older sister, Annie. In school he befriended Paul Citroen, who was later to become a Dutch artist, art educator and co-founder of the New Art Academy in Amsterdam. In 1908 he was given a camera (a ‘nine by 12 with an ultra-rapid anastigmatic lens, ground-glass screen, red rubber bulb, metal plate holders and a tripod,’ he recalled in his autobiography) and started taking and developing photographs.
He began his working career as an apprentice dressmaker to Moses and Schlochauer in 1913 but was drafted into the German army during WWI. In 1918 her moved to Amsterdam where he worked in the ladies lingerie departments of department stores. On 26 January 1921, he married Lena Citroen, the cousin of his best friend Paul Citroen after meeting her in Berlin in 1916 and corresponding for several years. They had three children: Lisette (Blumenfeld Georges), Heinz (Henry) and Franck (Yorick).
In 1923, he opened a shop in Amsterdam, the ‘Fox Leather Company’, a leather goods store specializing in ladies handbags. He photographed many of his customers – often nude. After moving to new premises in 1932, Blumenfeld discovered a fully equipped dark room and participated in his first exhibitions at Carl van Lier’s gallery nearby. He experimented with solarisation, multiple images and combining positive and negative images. In 1935 his first photograph was published in the French magazine Photographie. Unfortunately, this was also the year that his company went bankrupt.
Following a move to Paris on the 26th of January 1936, Blumenfeld was commissioned to take portraits of artists including George Rouault and Henri Matisse and secured his first advertising work. Blumenfeld quickly captured the attention of photographer Cecil Beaton who helped him get a contract with French Vogue.
During World War II, Blumenfeld and his family spent time in Vezelay with le Corbusier & Romain Rolland. He was incarecerated at le Viernet, a French concentration camp whilst his daughter Lisette was incarcerated at Gurs. They managed to reunite and in 1941, the Blumenfeld family of five sailed for New York with one suitcase containing a few rags. Upon arrival Blumenfeld was immediately put under contract by Harper’s Bazaar and after three years, he began freelance work for American Vogue. During the years 1936 through 1949 Lisette spent her time in the studio and in the darkroom with her father. His first double page spread in Vogue Magazine May 15, 1944 was a photograph shot earlier of his daughter Lisette’s legs. Over the next fifteen years, Blumenfeld’s work was featured on numerous Vogue covers and in a variety of publications including Flair, Life, and Look. During this period, he also worked as photographer for the Oval Room of the Dayton Department Store in Minneapolis and produced advertising campaigns for cosmetics clients such as Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden and L’Oreal.
In the late 50s, he began to create motion pictures, hoping to use them commercially and began work on his biography and his book ‘My One Hundred Best Photos’ which, despite being a renowned fashion photographer, only included four of his fashion images.
In the 1960s, he worked on his autobiography which found no publisher; it was published posthumously as “Ein Bildungsroman” in German by Eichborn Verlag 1975, and as “Eye to Eye” in English by Thames and Hudson 1999.
Erwin Blumenfeld died of a heart attack 4 July 1969 in Rome, Italy.
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