Erwin Blumenfeld, a photographer on trial

Famous for his color photos published in magazines vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, whose inventiveness and modernity have never ceased to influence the imagination of fashion photography, Erwin Blumenfeld nourished his work with incessant experimentation, to which his first avant-garde works in black and white already testified. Solarization, combination of positive and negative images, photomontage, superposition, superimposition, fragmentation, multiplication, play of lights, mirrors or veils, daring poses and framing…

He deploys in his work a wide range of sophisticated manipulations, expressions of a fierce freedom and a real artistic ambition. To smuggle art into illustration, perhaps the photographer has to really love photography more than the craft of photography,” declared, in December 1948, this autodidact who received his first camera at the age of 10.

Photographic tribulations of a Berlin Jew

If his iconic images are present, it is not so much success story in color of the American years that the Mahj invites us to, but rather to follow in black and white the “photographic tribulations of a Berlin Jew in the turmoil of the 20th century”, in the words of his granddaughter Nadia Blumenfeld-Charbit, co-curator of the exhibition.

The focus is on the period 1930-1950, a moment of intense creativity which saw Erwin Blumenfeld reconnect with photographic practice thanks to the discovery of a darkroom, in the back room of his leather goods. He produced portraits of women, posing his clients and those around him, Dadaist and political premonitory photomontages, such as this superimposition of Hitler’s face with a skull, entitled face of horror (1933) or this calf’s head resting on an antique bust, The Minotaur Where the dictator (1937), which Francis Picabia will reinterpret in his painting The Adoration of the Calf.

From Paris to New York

Following the bankruptcy of his business, his German Jewish suppliers no longer being supplied, he landed in Paris with the firm decision to devote himself to photography, the concern of being able to feed his family and “for all fortune a solitary worm”, says his granddaughter, who inherited his sense of humor. It was a time of lean cows, but France satisfied his appetite for art: the cathedral of Rouen, the sculptures of Aristide Maillol, the objects of the Ethnographic Museum of Trocadéro inspired him with enigmatic series. He begins to make advertisements, the orders are linked and, through the photographer Cecil Beaton, he is introduced to the magazine voguewhere his fashion photographs brought him the beginnings of artistic and financial recognition.

On the rise, his career was interrupted by the war. First refugees in Vézelay, he and his family will experience wandering from internment camp to internment camp as “undesirable foreigners” until August 1941. Thanks to the help of the Société Aid to Jewish Immigrants (HIAS), they can then set foot in New York, where Erwin reconnects with fashion and advertising, and will become one of the most prominent photographers.

Rare photographs captured this dark period: “I thought I was the victim of a collective hallucination: neither France nor I could fall so low”, he writes in his Memoirs in an alert and ironic style, reissued on the occasion of this exhibition. Note also, alongside the beautiful catalog, the publication of an impeccable “Photo pocket” which retraces his entire career.

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The first years

1897: Erwin is born on January 26 in Berlin into a middle-class Jewish family.

1907: he receives his first camera.

1913: the death of his father forces him to become an apprentice in ladies’ clothing.

1916: he is enrolled in the German army as an ambulance driver on the French front.

1918: he joins the Netherlands and his best friend Paul Citroën, with whom he participates in the Dada movement. He writes, paints and creates collages and photomontages.

1921: marriage to Lena Citroën, Paul’s cousin. Birth of their daughter Lisette the following year, followed by Heinz and then Yorick.

1922-1935: opening of a leather goods store in Amsterdam. Reconnect with photography.

1936: he settles in Paris as a photographer. First publications in the women’s press.

1941: departure for New York, where he opened his own studio in 1943.

“The tribulations of Erwin Blumenfeld 1930-1950”, exhibition at the Mahj in Paris until March 5. Catalog under the direction of Nadia Blumenfeld-Charbit, Ed. Mahj-RMN, 240 p., €42.

Erwin BlumenfeldActes Sud, “Pocket photo”, 144 p., €13.90.

Formerly and Daguerre, by Erwin Blumenfeld, translated from German by Françoise Toraille, Actes Sud, “Babel”, 496 p., €12.90.

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