JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against almond colored walls in the main gallery space and smaller side room. All of the works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1936 and 1952, with some works undated. Physical sizes range from roughly 11×9 to 20×16 inches (or reverse). No edition information was available on the checklist. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: One of the very real challenges that galleries consistently face when exhibiting vintage material is how to bring a fresh set of eyes to work that may be familiar to some or even many. And paired with this struggle for new perspectives is a second major constraint on the curatorial process – the blunt reality of what’s still available. By definition, there may be a limited number of scarce vintage prints running around when any one show is getting put together, thereby introducing a meaningful limitation on what can be organized. Often the solution is found in yet another deep dive into the storage boxes of an estate or archive, where overlooked rarities are unearthed and shaped into a sampler-style show of lesser known gems.
Erwin Blumenfeld had a full retrospective at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2013 (here), so the arc of his photographic career, and its movements from Dada and Surrealism into the realms of high fashion, has been comprehensively detailed relatively recently. Given that context, this show takes a smart approach and heads for a narrow theme – the interconnected nature of Blumenfeld’s use of drapery, shadows, and veiling in his photography, primarily as seen in 1930s and 1940s pictures of the female form but also in a few portraits. It’s a tight edit, and that commonality of subject matter allows us to follow Blumenfeld’s experiments with composition and process more closely.
It’s clear even from this small group of pictures that Blumenfeld had little interest in straightforward image making – every image here attempts to get away from obviousness and find a new way into the genre. And while the female nude has long been an artistic motif, Blumenfeld’s efforts with this subject matter are full of deliberate twists and turns.
Several images here pose a standing nude behind a flat draped cloth hung in front of the body. Depending on where the light is placed (often from the side, or slightly from the back) and where the cloth happens to touch the body, different silhouette and shadow effects are created, and with the nude partially obscured by the veil, the shadow becomes the activator of the compositions. In some cases, the silhouette bisects the face as if anchored on the nose; in others, a breast pulls the shadow into further levels of elongation or distortion. And in one case, the backlit veil covers only half of the nude form, creating a narrow doubling of arms and legs.
When applied to the face, Blumenfeld’s shadow play becomes even more extreme. A portrait of the photographer Cecil Beaton casts his entire face in darkness save a tiny sliver of eye and cheek, making his stare all the more mysterious, and Blumenfeld used a less bold version of the same technique in one of his self-portraits, allowing much of the right side of his own face to recede to black. When working with female models, he employed these same shadow ideas, but then brashly solarized the prints, creating eerie inversions of tonality. In these images, it’s almost as if the faces are melting away or dissolving, the surreal tweaks creating dissonant tears in the overriding mood of elegance.
Blumenfeld was also happy to introduce mirrors and multiple exposure effects, thereby turning one model into two, three, or more. An up close mirror seems to create a glamorous two headed body surrounded by gauzy drapery, a standing nude appears to become a carefully rotated simultaneous group of three, and an outline jitters into multiple silhouettes that disappear into each other, and in each case, Blumenfeld extends the nude into unexpected aesthetic terrain.
Even more illusionistic examples merge a lying nude and bright sky (via double exposure or negative combination), turning the body into the undulating horizon of a landscape, or isolate the hair of a sitter amid a cascade of drapery, making the image into a meticulous texture study. And these ideas then leads us full circle back to the drapery and cloth, where a wet veil changes the expected texture of skin, and gathered cloth interrupts our ability to see a face or creates the appearance of wings behind a windswept model.
The restlessness of Blumenfeld’s experimentation, and his willingness to blend avant-garde techniques with overt glamour, is the location of his ongoing relevance, especially to contemporary audiences – we don’t get the over-the-top risk taking of today’s fashion photography without first absorbing Blumenfeld’s many lessons. As these pictures attest, he was never satisfied with following the rules, and instead built his artistic career around actively subverting conventional pictorial structures. He was consistently able to pull sublime elegance out from a swirl of unsettling strangeness, and it is that intentional edge of friction that gives his best pictures their enduring vitality and freshness.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $25000 and $65000, with several additional works already sold. Blumenfeld’s photographs are often available in the secondary markets, with recent prices at auction ranging from $2000 to $112000.