Erwin Blumenfeld's Love of Female Form

Erwin Blumenfeld's Love of Female Form  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Christie's.

Erwin Blumenfeld worshiped the female face, form and hair which made him an ideal photographer for the cosmetics industry in the 1940s and 1950s. Combining his passion with imagination resulted in extraordinary photography.

“The women in America are the most beautiful in the world,” he said.  His appreciation showed up powerfully in his images.

Richelieu Pearls and Elizabeth Arden were two of the most prominent advertisers in fashion magazines and publications during the era and magazines like “Harper’s Bazaar” proved to be perfect for Blumenfeld’s work.  

By the 1950s the Berlin-born American was one of the most sought-after and highest paid fashion photographers in the world.  

He propelled fashion photography into high art producing over 100 color covers for “Vogue,” “Harper’s Bazaar,” “Look,” “Cosmopolitan,” and “Popular Photography.” 

Photographers must understand that they have to see with their own eyes and not the eyes of other photographers The amateur’s greatest fault is imitativeness.
— Erwin Blumenfeld

Inspired by the surrealist photography of Man Ray and Brassaï, Blumenfeld favored techniques like solarization, the use of screens and mirrors, double exposures, wet silk, and elaborately contrived shadows and angles. 

Bright orange and turquoise were two of his favorite colors.  He liked to ignore conventional rules regarding color.  He decided a green rose was better than a red rose and a red coat was even redder against red backgrounds.   

He draped his beauties in silk, wet muslin and see-through fabrics like tulle (used to make veils and tutus) creating an illusion of mystery and eroticism.   His gift was combining commercial approaches with experimental ones resulting in magical photos.  His females ended up resembling classical sculpture. 

Not reality, but the mystery of reality is what he evoked.

Advertising shots were also some of the most frustrating assignments for the photographer.  With the client usually came the art director, a breed of human he detested because they tried to impose their will on him. 

“They know their own business but usually know very little about art,” he complained.   The business of photography often trumped the art of photography. 

“What’s the photographer going to do?  Say the hell with the instructions, here’s the way to do it?  Or is he going to remember his rent, his grocery bills, and the installment due on his car?” he said.   

It was a delicate balance Blumenfeld struggled with his entire career. When it worked, he snuck a Trojan horse into his photos. 

He liked to tell the story of how his fashion photograph of a model in bare feet, smuggled in, to induce a feeling of classical Greece lost a magazine $50,000 in advertising accounts from shoe manufacturers.  

Even so, his were some of the greatest couture photographs of the era for names like Chanel, Balenciaga, Piguet, Charles James and Dior.

“Photographers must understand that they have to see with their own eyes and not the eyes of other photographers,” he said.  “The amateur’s greatest fault is imitativeness.”

On Oct. 3, Christie’s, New York, featured a selection of Erwin Blumenfeld’s work in its Photographs auction. 

Erwin Blumenfeld Gelatin Silver Prints

New York; female hands draped in cloth; signed and inscribed in ink; 1942; 13 ½ inches by 10 ¾ inches;  $17,500.

The Legs of Danilova; close-up on ballerina legs; signed in ink; New York, 1950; 19 3/8 inches by 13 1/8 inches;  $22,500.

New York; female form; signed in ink; 1942; 18 ½ inches by 13 ½ inches;  $25,000.

New York; female profile; signed in ink; 1948; 20 inches by 16 inches;  $50,000.

Paris; female nude from behind; signed in ink; 1938; 19 1/8 inches by 14 3/8 inches;  $60,000.


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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