Photographic history is chock-full of people who were painters before they became photographers, but very few were in women’s wear to begin with. Erwin Blumenfeld (1897-1969) was born in Berlin into a bourgeois Jewish family. For his very first photograph, at the age of 10, Erwin had assembled a still life that would have done a collagist, or a Dadaist, proud, with Michelangelo’s Moses holding a half-peeled potato and a toothbrush in his lap and Blumenfeld’s brother resting his lead on an upturned chamber pot, “wearing”, as Blumenfeld wrote in his memoir, “Mama’s pince-nez and Pa-Pa’s mustache- trainer, and clutching Mama’s rolled-up corset in his fist.”
In 1903, Paul enrolled at the prestigious Askanisches Gymnasium. He left the school in 1913, giving up thoughts of further education on the death of his father – the family is virtually bankrupt. Instead, he started a three-year apprenticeship in the women’s garment trade. With his best friend from school, Paul Citroen, he began to frequent the Café des Westens, a favourite meeting place of the Expressionists; there he met a number of the key figures, including the poet Else Lasker-Schüler and George Grosz, who will become a lifelong friend. In 1916, Blumenfeld met Lena Citroen, a cousin of Paul Citroen. They became engaged soon after, and married in 1921.
Conscripted into the German army in 1917, Blumenfeld was sent as an ambulance driver to the Western Front. He was the only survivor when, “driving with neither lights nor experience”, his loaded “Corpse-Carrier” overturned. He was also the bookkeeper of Field Brothel No. 209 near the Belgian border – in service of a unit diagnosed as “one hundred percent syphilitic, attributable, perhaps, to the practice of recycling hard-to-find condoms.” He also was a French tutor to an obtuse sergeant (who when hiring Blumenfeld awarded him the Iron Cross). On home leave in June of 1918, Blumenfeld tried to desert to Holland, but was arrested and imprisoned before he could put his plans into effect. Released, he returned to the Front where he learned of the death of his brother, Heinz, near Verdun. At war’s end, Blumenfeld went to Holland to join his fiancée, Lena.
In Holland, Blumenfeld made various attempts to secure a livelihood, including working for a bookseller. He joined Paul Citroen, who had set himself up as art dealer, but abandoned this attempt when it became evident that there was virtually no market in Holland for contemporary art. Instead, he became a “Sunday painter”, made collages and drawings, and participated in the Dutch Dada Movement. He elected himself co-president of the Amsterdam branch of Dada, the other president, Paul Citroen, being the only other member. In 1923, he went into the leather goods business, opening a shop at Kalverstraat, Amsterdam’s busiest shopping street, under the name “Fox Leather Company”.In 1929, Blumenfeld was arrested on Zandvoort beach for allowing a strap of his bathing suit to slip. This dashed chances of Dutch citizenship, for which he had applied, and would later send him – as a German citizen – to a French internment camp. In 1932, Blumenfeld moved premises further down the Kalverstraat and discovered an operational darkroom on the premises. He began to photograph female customers (for the most part portraits but also some nudes), both out of interest in photography and with the idea of making money. New portraits went into his shop window each morning among the crocodile extravagances.
Blumenfeld’s leather goods store went into bankruptcy in 1935. His first photographs were published the same year in the French magazine Photographie. His work was also included in a group show organized by Paul Citroen at the Nieuwe Kunstschool (New Art School) in Amsterdam, along with Grosz, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy, Léger, Mondrian, Schwitters and others. After he had met George Rouault’s daughter Geneviève, a dentist, on a visit to his shop, she arranged to exhibit his work in her waiting room near the Opéra in Paris. Some months later, Blumenfeld left Holland and settled in Paris with the aim of becoming a professional photographer. Geneviève Rouault helped him to secure the first clients for portraits.
In 1936, Blumenfeld made one of his best-known images, Nude under Wet Veil (above), which illustrates his boyhood discovery that Botticelli and Cranach had rendered their nudes even more naked by covering them with transparent veils. The same year, he printed an image of a half-draped classical torso opped by a beady-eyed calf’s head and called it The Dictator (above). One of his 1933 photocollages of Hitler, the version with a jagged hole for a nose, (below) was exhibited in Paris in 1937 but had to be withdrawn because the German Ambassador was so incensed by it. The Germans got to see it anyway. The United States Air Force dropped millions of copies of this photograph over German cities in 1943.
Blumenfeld met Cecil Beaton, who helped him secure a contract with French Vogue in 1938. The following year, he took his best-known Parisian fashion photograph, showing model Lisa Fonssagrives on the Eiffel Tower. With the outbreak of the Second World War, Blumenfeld was imprisoned in various French camps, but, in 1942, succeded to flee to the United States. His reminiscences about his brutal internment would later unleash some of his most hilarious rhetoric, not only at Hitler (the “idol of lavatory manufacturers”) but also at the French collaborators.
Blumenfeld settled in New York, where he was immediately put under contract by Harper’s Bazaar. He found an apartment at the Hotel des Artistes, 67th Street. For almost two years he shared the studio of Martin Munkacsi. In the 1940s and 1950s his work appeared in Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Life, Cosmopolitan and many other American and foreign publications. A selection of Blumenfeld’s work was included in In and Out of Focus: A Survey of Today’s Photography, curated by Edward Steichen in 1947 at the Museum of Modern Art.
That year, the failed leather goods man was said to be the highest-paid photographer in the world. So in the end, Erwin Blumenfeld put all three of his careers together – women’s wear, art and photography. One should add, that he was a gifted writer, too: In the 1960s, Blumenfeld worked on his caustic, vigorously sardonic memoir, which found no publisher because it was considered to be too ironic towards society, and was published only after his death. It has been published in German under the title Einbildungs Roman, Eichborn Verlag, 1998. The English translation has the title Eye to I. Following a heart attack, Erwin Blumenfeld died 1969 when in Rome. He is buried there.