The Most Remarkable and Strange Life of Erwin Blumenfeld

Self portrait by Erwin Blumenfeld.
Double self-portrait by Erwin Blumenfeld.

If it were pitched as a motion-picture screenplay, Erwin Blumenfeld’s life would read like an ill-wrought mashup of unlikely, even contradictory, forces. He was an avant-garde Dadaist turned high-fashion-magazine "sellout"; a happily married father of three, turned Humbert Humbert sexagenarian in sexual thrall to a woman almost 45 years his junior; a German Jew who was so filled with a moral life force that he dared caricature Hitler while he was a vulnerable émigré in Amsterdam …

Collage by Blumenfeld.
Collage by Blumenfeld.

… and then, after surviving a French concentration camp and an arduous immigration to America, he became the reigning star of American fashion photography in the 1940s and 1950s, only to have his life collapse with a dramatic public suicide at age 71 in Rome.

It is a story that could only be written by the man who lived it. Blumenfeld’s picaresque autobiography, Eye to I, begins with a chapter titled “Prenatal Education,” wherein he speculates on his own conception as one of “Onan’s offsprings,” and ends (after 70 discursive chapters and nearly 400 pages) with this fugue-like postscript that was found among his papers:

Wet breath rained hammer blows on my heart, teeth threatened to stick in my throat, bones crumbled, pearls of sweat fell before swine, mucus-filled guts left me revoltingly, eyes stared vacantly into nirvanas, the thread broke, everything was past: I was dead.

A few days after writing that, he was dead. After refusing his prescribed stabilizing heart medication, he ran up and down the historic steps of the Piazza di Spagna until he collapsed and expired.

Blumenfeld presents his life story in a highly inflected, self-mythologizing style that is part Joycean stream of consciousness, part Henry Miller or William Burroughs gutter poetry, and part 19th century Bildungsroman. Above all, it is a complex self-portrait of an artist at the intersection of art and commerce in the first half of the 20th century.

A measure of Blumenfeld’s artistic journey over his near 50-year career can be seen in his portrait of Grace Kelly wearing an Oleg Cassini gown in the April 1955 issue of Cosmopolitan

… or in this cleverly surreal photograph from the May 1949 Vogue

… or in the Dada-inflected abstract cover shot of model Jean Patchett in the January 1950 Vogue …

Blumenfeld was born to the camera. At age 8, he already had his first camera, and six years later, he made the first of dozens of self-portraits as Pierrot, a mirror held askew for a double perspective, a trick he used often.

Blumenfeld's first self portrait.
Blumenfeld's first self-portrait.

Many artists are obsessed with self-portraiture, including my recent subject Paul Outerbridge.

Unlike the ever dapper Outerbridge, Blumenfeld was not an especially attractive man — his literary narcissism is nonetheless at the forefront in every page of his autobiography — and his most famous works were near narcissistic, even fetishistic, displays of beautiful women, their faces and bodies captured in the high-key, idealized fashion color work of his mid-career …

Photo by Blumenfeld.

… or in the darker eroticism of his early black-and-white nudes …

Many major photographers were camera bugs in their youth, but Blumenfeld, despite his early interest in photography, spent much of his twenties plumbing the rich avant-garde art world of post-World War I Berlin, becoming an acolyte of the scurrilous Dadaist painter George Grosz, the photo collagist John Heartfield and, especially (in his uncanny mix of fashion and surrealism), the American Man Ray. Blumenfeld returned to photography only after he discovered, in the early 1930s, an abandoned darkroom in the studio above his leather-goods boutique in Amsterdam.

Self-portrait by Blumenfeld.
Collage self-portrait by Blumenfeld.

Blumenfeld’s first fashion-magazine cover appeared on the French monthly Votre Beauté, and you can already see in it the mix of abstraction, graphic design and idealized beauty that was to prove his signature style for nearly three decades.

Blumenfeld's first magazine cover.
Blumenfeld's first magazine cover.

Blumenfeld created more than 100 covers for Vogue alone. He worked also for Harper's Bazaar, Life and Look, and for major clients such as Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and L’Oreal. By 1950, he was universally recognized as the highest paid photographer in the world, photographing major models such as Lisa Fonssagrives and Carmen Dell’Orefice.

Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower.
Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower.

Carmen Dell'Orefice
Carmen Dell'Orefice in 2013 (Credit: Fadil Berisha)

(Dell'Orefice, who began modeling in 1946, is still working at age 85.)

The protean Blumenfeld continued to innovate after he was declared passé by mid-1960s fashionistas, who admired the looser, more athletic modeling and camera style that gained ground in the London hip/mod scene. Blumenfeld’s continuing work in both still photography and short experimental movies reflected an insatiable work ethic; his imagery began to assume a fragmented, almost cubist look that harked back to his black-and-white experiments in the 1930s, except that they featured supersaturated colors evocative of 1960s psychedelic posters.

One of Blumenfeld's color experiments.
One of Blumenfeld's color experiments.

In addition to Eye to I, a monograph by Blumenfeld called My One Hundred Best Photos was published after his death. With a touch of inherently perverse irony, only four of the images are from the world of fashion, and none of the photos in the book is in color. Highly intimate portraits of contemporary artists and literary figures he photographed in Paris in early 1936 are juxtaposed with high-contrast abstractions. Few of these photos are among his best known.

I’ve decided not to plumb more details about this unpredictable and certifiably unreliable narrator of his own life. (Think of the tone and style of a novel like Tristram Shandy.)

An ambitious attempt was ventured in a 2013 feature documentary that was directed by Blumenfeld’s son Yorick and produced by another son, Remy. It was broadcast on BBC4. Over slightly more than an hour, we are led through the labyrinthine madness and folly of the first half of the 20th century, especially the crazed intersection of the art/political manifestoes that came out of the chaos of World War I. It is a documentary whose twists and turns lead to even more byways.

Like his life, Blumenfeld’s afterlife is the stuff of confusion and crosscurrents, as his family and heirs attempt to sort out and resolve the tens of thousands of prints (mainly unpublished) that constitute his legacy.

In this mesmerizing documentary, Blumenfeld comes alive again in all his eccentricity and genius.

1955 self-portrait by Blumenfeld.
Self-portrait by Blumenfeld.

Self-portrait by Blumenfeld.

NEXT: Harry Crews: The Bard of Bacon County



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