Much of fashion photography today is about showing the details of accessories and pretty dresses in an effort to boost sales, which, granted, is usually the point. There's often a frenetic energy, too much to look at and take in – the editorial equivalent of a noisy movie-musical set. But in its beginnings, the medium was merely model studies of women in clothes, which, in their stark simplicity, conveyed a certain remote stillness. Amid the season's visual cacophony, it's worth pausing to consider Horst Bohrmann, and remember the possibilities of an art form that was once just that: art.
Pretty dresses were the least of Horst's concerns; in his photographs, they are largely obscured. More familiarly known as Horst P. Horst, the surname the German-born photographer officially took on in 1944, when he became a U.S. citizen, he was a regular contributor to Vogue, as well as Condé Nast publications such as Vanity Fair throughout his 60-year career.
The extensive Horst: Photographer of Style exhibition was a hit at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London last year and is on show at the McCord Museum in Montreal for the summer (opening May 14). It offers a consideration of Horst's glamour photography in the context of his many other projects and interests (like his Middle East archeology excursions), but in particular reflects how he shaped and advanced the role of style photography.
In the 1920s, Horst studied design under Bauhaus's Walter Gropius, moving to Paris for what would be a brief stint as an apprentice and architectural draughtsman for Le Corbusier. Instead, almost inevitably, he fell into the creative arts swirl of the city and became a disciple of French Vogue's star shutterbug George Hoyningen-Huene, with whom he also had a romantic relationship. When Huene moved to New York in the mid-1930s and defected to Harper's Bazaar, Horst became the magazine's principal photographer.
There, Horst's taste for mixing the neoclassical and the modern dovetailed with the sensibilities of Vogue creative director Alexander Lieberman, who wrote of the medium's new role born in that era: "A unique collaboration of talent, circumstance and opportunity lifted fashion photography in the 1930s into an instinctive place as a separate visual genre in the arts of the 20th century."
He staged and meticulously configured spotlights in studio to produce his signature 3-D effects and dramatic shadows. Whether he was capturing Salvador Dali's stage costumes or dresses from Elsa Schiaparelli's salon, Horst not only understood the immediate themes, but their underlying philosophy and the artistic intentions and techniques that created the clothing – and he reflected it in the pictures.
The most indelible of these for both the stories around it and the picture itself is Mainbocher Corset, his last Paris photograph, taken in 1939 in the wee hours of his last morning in the city (he set sail to New York on the Normandie a few hours later). That image and others have left such a strong visual impact that its echo became part of the medium's grammar (Robert Mapplethorpe and Bruce Weber both have a debt to his 1950s male nudes; the corset and several other obvious Horst references appear, in motion, in Madonna's 1990 Vogue video). In it, a model leans in a loosely unlaced satin corset with ribbons carelessly strewn and her back to the camera. Horst would later write of how it captured all that he left behind that morning. (When it ran in the magazine, Vogue had amended the photograph so that the corset is tight on the model.)
In the late 1930s, even as his assistant retouched photographs and thinned waistlines of his work for use in Vogue, and although Horst's career was only quite recently established, the photographer, who was likely feeling the shadow cast by imminent war, didn't shy from commentary on the industry that kept him living in style. For a feature about mechanical innovations in beauty, for example, Horst created Electric Beauty, which could be a still from a horror movie. Its masked subject is oblivious to the danger she's in: wrapped in a towel, her legs are covered in depilatory cream and her feet are submerged in a bucket of water; she is virtually strangled by the cords of the electric device she is blindly about to use. Even without considering the backdrop behind her (an enlarged monster detail from Bosch's Temptation of St. Anthony, containing coded cautionary messages about the folly of vanity), the composition seems a pointed critique of the very proceedings it purports to endorse.