Seeing Eye to I: Erwin Blumenfeld’s Photography Celebrated in Exhibition

An exhibition of the work of influential photographer Erwin Blumenfeld will be unveiled in London on 23 May at Somerset House. ‘Blumenfeld Studio: New York, 1941 – 1960’ celebrates Blumenfeld’s latter work produced in his Central Park studio in New York during World War II and the post-war boom years. The exhibition will include examples of his fashion photography, advertising campaigns, personality portraits, ‘war effort’ propaganda posters and experimental work, which have since been recognised as significant technical achievements in the field. It features over ninety original modern prints, fully restored in colour, original publication clippings and rarely-seen fashion films from the early 1960s.

Erwin Blumenfeld was born in 1897 in Berlin into a Jewish family. After his father’s death he entered an apprenticeship in the garment industry and then served as a soldier in France during the World War I. In 1918 he left to Holland and married Lena Citroen, opening a leather goods shop in Amsterdam in 1923 whilst also trying to become a painter and getting involved in the Dada movement. He began experimenting with photography in the early 1930s, taking photographs of customers in his shop and later exhibiting his works at the Van Lier gallery in Amsterdam. When his business went bankrupt, he left for Paris in 1935 where he was introduced to the world of fashion photography and to French Vogue magazine by Cecil Beaton.

During World War II, Blumenfeld was interned in French war camps but managed to escape to the US with his family in 1941 through Marseilles. In New York, Blumenfeld was signed up by Harper’s Bazaar, collaborating with Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland on the magazine’s fashion shoots. After only three years of working in the USA, he had become one of the most famous and highly paid photographers in the business, with the New York Times heralding him as an “outstanding leader in imaginative photography”.

A highlight of his career in America was his 15 year collaboration with Vogue and Alexander Liberman, shooting over 50 cover for US Vogue including portraits of famous models and high society women of the time such as Babe Paley, Dovima, Jean Patchett and Carmen Dell’Orefice. He also regularly worked with other American fashion magazines such as Cosmopolitan (for which he shot Grace Kelly in 1955) and Life Magazine, as well as producing major advertising campaigns for fashion and beauty clients including Dior, Elizabeth Arden, Max Factor, L’Oréal and Helena Rubenstein.

Blumenfeld continued to work in fashion and advertising until the early 1960s, when he devoted his time to writing his autobiography Eye to I. He died in Rome in 1969.