In 1943, in the midst of World War II, a U.S. Army propaganda drop over Berlin distributed leaflets bearing gruesome images of Adolf Hitler’s face partially obscured by a calf’s skull. Those who dared to pick one up would never have guessed that the artist who created that foreboding picture was born in Berlin — or that he was, at that very point in time, embarking on a career that would make him one of the highest paid fashion and advertising photographers of his time.
Erwin Blumenfeld, who was Jewish, originally created “Hitler’s Mug,” a Dadaist montage, 10 years earlier in 1933. Having experienced the brutality of the front during World War I, he was then living in Holland where he had fled to in 1918 to be with his wife Lena, the sister of his longtime friend, the German-born Dutch artist Paul Citroen. In Amsterdam, under the pseudonym of Jan Bloomfield, he established a branch of Dadaism with Citroen, while also running a leather goods store until it went bankrupt in 1935.
By the time “Hitler’s Mug” was being dropped on Berlin, Blumenfeld had moved from art to fashion photography, and from Amsterdam to Paris. He created iconic covers for Vogue magazine until he and his family were interned in French camps at the outbreak of World War II. Freed in 1941, he fled France for New York and was immediately hired by Harper’s Bazaar. In 1943, he set up his own studio.
Following in the footsteps of the likes of Edward Steichen, whose Modernist photography helped revolutionize fashion magazines, Blumenfeld used his experience as a Dadaist — mastering collage, superimposition, solarization, reticulation, multiple exposures and other experimental techniques — to blur the lines between art and commercial photography. But unlike Steichen, whose career in fashion had been largely limited by black-and-white film, Blumenfeld had the opportunity to excel in color, introducing unusual, vibrant palettes in unexpected combinations.
Not content to experiment with technique alone, he also incorporated surrealist and abstract elements to composition. He used mirrors to fragment or repeat subjects, obscured models with colored, frosted and fluted glass, hid faces with veils or shadows, and shot extreme closeups. Often, he dispensed with background, preferring to leave his subjects as the only focus, even if they themselves were obscured by technique. His 1950 “The Doe’s Eye” cover for Vogue U.S. , for example, distills a closeup of Jean Patchett to a single perfectly made-up eye and eyebrow, scarlet lips and a beauty spot; while the model in “Do Your Part for the Red Cross,” a 1945 Vogue cover, is reduced to a silhouette by opalescent glass and a transparent red cross.
For fashion, it was also a golden age — wartime fabric rationing was being lifted, dresses became elaborate, and couture houses began licensing designs to reach a global clientele. Blumenfeld was therefore prolific, and yet, surprisingly, when it came to selecting images for his “My One Hundred Best Photos,” he favored more personal and avant-garde works, choosing to include only four fashion shots. Finding ways to manipulate photography into an art form, it seems, remained his priority.
As his granddaughter Nadia Blumenfeld has said, “He used to say he ‘smuggled’ art into fashion and advertising photography.”
“Erwin Blumenfeld: A Hidden Ritual of Beauty” runs at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography till May 6; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. and Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥800. Closed Mon. www.syabi.com