The cover of the “Summer Fashion” edition of Vogue in May 1941, featured a lithe model decked in an old-world bathing suit and bonnet, her legs climbing up the wall towards a red exercise ball balanced on the tip of her toe. Her face is hidden from view, while her head is poised in a delicate angle, as if she is doing stomach crunches in style.
The photographer was Horst P. Horst (1906 – 1999), and the image is part of a retrospective, “Horst: Photographer of Style” that has opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (until January 4, 2015). It celebrates the work of the artist.
Horst incorporated modernism and surrealism into the world of fashion photography, as well as contrasting dramatic light and shadow as if drawn from black-and-white films not to mention a stylish eye.
One of the 20th century’s master photographers, Horst’s career spanned six decades, during which he photographed the creations of couturiers such as Chanel, Schiaparelli and Vionnet in 1930s Paris. He also helped to launch the careers of many models.
Born in 1906 in Germany, he was considered a pioneer in classic fashion photography. He apprenticed with none other than Le Corbusier in Paris, and trained in architecturally constructing a photo. Think angles and dimensions.
His work first appeared in French Vogue in 1931, which was followed in British Vogue in 1932. After he fled Europe at the start of the war, he continued to work for American Vogue.
Some dramatic black and white photographs (Horst directing a fashion shoot with Lisa Fonssagrives), for example, make one think of him as the still life equivalent of the filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch, with his contrasts of shadow and light, and diva poses of his beautiful muses, as if Marlene Dietrich had been cast in the perfect spotlight on screen.
In fact he did photograph the actress in 1942, in an image taken in New York. And he photographed her in her customary dark shadows, her cheek bones accentuated like the face of an angle, glowing in white light, her narrow body dressed in a black suit, disappearing into the background, making her half devil. The mouth captured in its delirious, downward pout.
The Horst directing this fashion shoot image from 1949, like a film still. It is filled with life. He shows himself directing a fashion shoot, the model holding her gown out behind her like a peacock’s tail, whilst kissing the skies in front of a white backdrop.
Considered his most iconic work and taken on the eve of WWII before he fled Europe, Horst’s Mainbrocher Corset from 1939, shot in black and white, shows a model’s back cast in dark shadows. She is wearing a corset, which brings to mind an early photograph of soft porn elevated to new heights. Perhaps drawing on film, it has been deemed a great “silent picture.” It had a message, however, to show how fragility and beauty can be destructed through war.
The image was taken before he took a break from photography which he continued then to practice however for most of his life.
There are images shown here that span the length of his career.
His Round The Clock photograph from 1987, shows a model’s legs in fishnets reaching into a ball of net, works like a cloud punctuating the black background, drawn with quiet mastery like a ballerina balancing perfectly on points.
From the end of the war in 1945, his Patterns from Nature Photographic Collage, meanwhile, looks like an etching of skin art from an African tribe in its graphic look, like a close up of a detail on a design.
In some of his color shots, he favored lines and blocks of bold colors as backdrops, like in a shoot of a dress by Hattie Carnegie in which his romantic muse stretches out across the floor decked in flowers, reaching out towards a sea of green stripes. The image dates back to 1939.
Likewise, in his Schiaparelli dinner suit and headdress image from 1947, the focus is on the blocks and lines of color. The model’s body is cast black like a shadow while the background blocks of color in the set and a regal chair that she clasps, are lit up as is a waistband in violet decorated with black embroidery.
What a fabulous use of light!
Capturing his work with surrealism, is an image showing Salvador Dali’s costumes for Leonard Massine’s ballet Bacchanale from 1939. The legs of a dancer are shown bare, her head covered in a ruffled ballet skirt, fanned out like a designer head piece.
Carmen Dell’Orefice, the model who worked with Horst from 1946, opened the exhibition with Condé Nast’s International President and V&A Trustee, Nicholas Coleridge, Horst worked with Vogue throughout his 60-year career.
“Horst: Photographer of Style” displays 250 photographs, alongside Haute couture garments, magazines, film footage and ephemera.
On display are Horst’s best known photographs, alongside unpublished and rarely exhibited vintage prints, conveying the diversity of his output, from surreal still lifes to portraits of Hollywood stars.
It also includes all of the 94 front covers Horst shot for Vogue.