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Erwin Blumenfeld

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Excepted from The Economist, Nov 9th 2013:

Erwin Blumenfeld arrived in New York in 1941 with a suitcase, little English and no professional training as a photographer. Aged 44 and undaunted, he went on to reinvent both himself and fashion photography. He created over a hundred start-lingly original magazine covers and countless fashion shots for the slick pages of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. His images mirrored the energy and excitement of Manhattan in the 1940s and 1950s.

For a Vogue cover from January 1950, Blumenfeld used fierce light to erase a model’s features, leaving only an eye, a mouth and a beauty spot. Another cover, this time to raise money for the Red Cross after the second world war, superimposed a translucent red cross over the blurred figure of a model in a turquoise hat. Blumenfeld’s surrealist image of Adolf Hitler, his face distorted by a skull, covered millions of American propaganda leaflets dropped over Germany in 1942.

Often headless, his nudes appear remote and mysterious, owing to Blumenfeld’s use of mirrors, diaphanous fabrics and solarisation (a darkroom technique that inverts the lights and darks of an image). They reveal the influence of avant-garde photographers such as Man Ray, whose work he saw in Paris in the 1930s. Blumenfeld’s 1937 masterpiece, “Nude Under Wet Silk”, earned him some art-world notoriety when it was published in Verve magazine.

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Blumenfeld’s inventive images earned him fame as “the best-paid photographer in the world”. Yet he chose only four fashion photographs for his book, “My One Hundred Best Photos”, published in 1981 (he died in 1969). He yearned to be taken seriously as an artist, and began experimenting with the medium during his pre-war years in Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris.

Born in 1897 into a bourgeois Jewish family in Berlin, he got a camera for his tenth birthday. Aged 14, he shot a playful self-portrait dressed as the sad clown Pierrot, holding a mirror to his face to create a double image. “I wanted to be a photographer, pure and simple,” he later wrote. His aspirations turned practical after his father’s death in 1913. Blumenfeld worked first for a Berlin garment manufacturer, then drove an ambulance in the first world war, yet he floundered in any job that did not involve film. After getting married in 1921, he set up a handbag shop in Amsterdam, and struggled to get by. He took advantage of a disused darkroom to experiment with portraits and nudes.

Upon moving to Paris in 1936 he set up a studio with the help of an art dealer, Walter Feilchenfeldt. A magazine cover for Votre Beauté and an exhibition at the Galerie Billiet prompted a studio visit from Cecil Beaton, an English photographer, who swiftly secured Blumenfeld a contract with French Vogue. “His merit as an artist lies in the fact he is incapable of compromise,” Beaton noted. One of Blumenfeld’s best-known black-and-white spreads, published in Vogue in 1939, features a model perched on the edge of the Eiffel Tower, her flimsy dress fluttering in the breeze.

When war broke out in September that year, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of camps, including Le Vernet. He finally escaped with his family to New York two years later. Studios replete with staff and equipment awaited him, along with a contract with Harper’s Bazaar. His New York years were devoted to self-confident glamour of America and he helped define the way America saw itself—a remarkable feat for a man who described himself as “un-American for ever”.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 20, 2014 at 4:09 am

Last Public Execution by Guillotine

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There are some people still alive today who were present at the last public execution in France. Actor Christopher Lee, for instance. In the early morning of 17 June 1939, Eugène Weidmann bowed down before the blade of the guillotine, the last person to do so publicly.

Weidmann was the last person to be executed before a crowd in France. He had been convicted of multiple kidnappings and murders, including that of a young American socialite. His trial was a sensation in that tense summer of 1939; the Frankfurt-born Weidmann was quickly dubbed “Teutonic Vampire” by the tabloids. His execution outside the prison Saint-Pierre in Versailles was a noisy affair.

In the days following the execution, the press was especially indignant at the way the crowd had behaved. Paris-Soir denounced the crowd as“disgusting”, “unruly”, “jostling, clamoring, whistling.” Among the sins the lofty paper found unforgivable was the crowd “devouring sandwiches”. More shockingly for the authorities, the unruly crowd delayed the execution beyond the usual twilight hour of dawn, enabling clear photographs — and one short film! — to be taken. The government regretted that public executions which were intended to have a “moralizing effect” now produced “practically the opposite results.” President LeBrun signed an order to hold executions only behind closed doors.

By this time, France was already an anomaly; the proud tradition of macabre spectacle dating back millennia  was fast becoming forbidden in the West.  Most German states banned public executions in the 1850s. England carried out her last public execution — that of the Fenian agitator Michael Barrett — in 1868, and most of her dominions followed. From then on, momentum was with ban of public executions. Liberal Denmark banned public executions in 1882, and abolished the death penalty altogether in 1933. In 1936, Kentucky became the last American state to ban public executions. 

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 31, 2014 at 3:48 am

Posted in Culture

A Storm at La Jument

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At the edge of Iroise Sea stands a lighthouse. The waters off the coast of Brittany are among the most dangerous in Europe, and it claimed over thirty ships between 1888 and 1904, when construction began of the lighthouse. It took seven years to finish because of the harsh storms.

On 21st December 1989, Jean Guichard traveled to the lighthouse in a helicopter when such a storm broke out. Guichard was a celebrated photographer of maritime heritage around France and decided to take photos of the lighthouse during the storm. Inside, the lighthouse keeper Théodore Malgorn was waiting to be rescued, and thought Guichard’s helicopter was his rescue helicopter.

He hurried downstairs to open the door — a moment which coincided with a giant wave enveloping the lighthouse. Malgorn rushed back inside and managed to close the door, and Guichard took a series of seven photos that became instantly famous. They sold over one million copies in poster print and earned him the World Press Photo award.

Two years later, automation came to Breton lighthouses; La Jument’s keeper was retired 1991.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 17, 2013 at 3:19 am

Posted in Culture

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Lewis Morley (1925 – 2013)

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Lewis Morley, one half of an iconic spread, is dead, aged 88.

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It is often said that the pill and Lady Chatterley’s Love made the permissive society. Alas, the sexual revolution also got its fair share of help from indiscretions of John Profumo, a Tory government minister, for no matter what unflappable judges declared over the previous decade, the Profumo Affair proved otherwise with its steamy reveals about the lives of stiff-upper-lipped establishment types.

While it was a more forgiving age where even the most public of individuals — from Edward VIII to John Kennedy to Labour’s own leader Hugh Gaitskell — could rely on the press to overlook their indiscretions, it was Profumo’s misfortune to become entangled with a call girl named Christine Keeler, who might be also seeing a Russian spy. Revealed alongside were salacious tales of demimondaine brothels, lavish parties, two-way mirrors, and rumors about a naked, masked, and illustrious male “host” whose identity was never revealed. It was a watershed moment for both the British politics and British political reporting.

Ms. Keeler posed famously for Lewis Morley, a famed chronicler of the Swinging Sixties. Morley cleared the studio and turned his back so that Keeler could undress, suggesting she sit astride the chair so the back would shield her. As the 30-minute shoot which burnt up 120 rolls of film was coming to end, Morley turned away, only to notice Keeler “in a perfect position”. The most amours photo was literally the last shot

Morley did not have fond memories of the day. “I never found her sexy,” he said. “She reminded me too much of Vera Lynn!” And as he came to resent its overshadowing of his other work, he called it “that fucking Keeler shot” and parodied it by photographing himself in the same pose with a millstone around his neck. He however signed the chair — a thinly-masked Arne Jacobsen copy — and sold it to the V&A while the National Portrait Gallery bought all original photos.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 16, 2013 at 12:49 pm

California Trip | Dennis Stock

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Past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. From my stuffy desk, no past seems more foreign and different than the one lived by my parents and many of their compatriots: counter-culture of the 1960s, cobblestone-hurling revolts that rocked many Western democracies, hippies hitchhiking from Europe to India, across places like Syria, Iran, and Afghanistan. Alien lands indeed.

In 1968, Dennis Stock made an equally surreal journey. Stock, an esteemed photographer of jazz music scene, travelled across California at the height of hippie culture and free love. The resulting book, knowingly named California Trip, was “an ode to liberty”, and no photo encapsulated this zeitgeist more than the above photo taken at Venice Beach Rock Festival, which graced the cover of Reporters Without Borders’ 25th anniversary book.

In his contact sheets, you can see the spontaneity. When an unknown girl, her hands lilting and writhing, jumped in front of Stock’s lens, he took only four photos, but the moment’s lyrical energy and joie de vivre shine through the negatives. Stock remembers his trip: “I was attracted by the hippie movement, that was defined by two main principles: caring about others, and a taste for adventure. My pictures of hippies are about the search of a better life. I was drawn by what they tried to achieve. The hippy instinct was countercultural, it said ‘Let’s try to go back to basics’. Hippydom, in a sense, is a return of teenage rebellion, a new, stronger rebellion. Each one of us has a period of rebellion at a certain moment of their lives.”

In a later interview, he added: “Every idea that Western man explores in his pursuit of the best of all possible worlds will be searched at the head lab -California. Technological and spiritual quests vibrate throughout the state, intermingling, often creating the ethereal. It is from this freewheeling potpourri of search that the momentary ensembles in space spring, presenting to the photographer his surrealistic image. However, to the Californians it is all so ordinary, almost mundane. The sensibility of these conditioned victims is where it is all at, right, left, up and down. Our future is being determined in the lab out West. There, a recent trip blew my mind across this state of being, as I collected images along the way to remember the transient quality of the Big Trip.”

[Interviews are transcipted from the Independent].

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 31, 2013 at 6:21 pm

A Llama in Times Square | Inge Morath

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It was one of the more playful spreads in Life magazine. In its December 2, 1957 issue, the magazine featured a one-page story, humorously titled ‘High-paid llama in big city’. The story covered different television animals—from dogs and cats to a kangaroo and a miniature bull—but its highlight was Linda the Llama, as photographed by Inge Morath.

The caption read the llama was enroute to make a television appearance, but Morath recalled differently in her notes: “Linda, the Lama [sic] rides home via Broadway. She is just coming home from a television show in New York’s A.B.C. studios and now takes a relaxed and long-necked look at the lights of one of the world’s most famous streets.” Her contact sheets showed that Morath was already photographing the llama inside the studio, and the Inge Morath Foundation suggests the photographer might have acquainted herself with the llama and the trainer at least a year ahead of their photo-session.

The photo is undoubtedly one of the most famous photos by Inge Morath, one of the greatest photographers of her generation, and a typical one for her too. Her photographs were often surreal – Chinese soldiers climbing a large statue of Buddha, a driver with a poodle on his passenger seat, frantically dancing girls from Iraq to Iberia – a whimsy shaped by her experiences growing up in Austria during and after the Second World War: “Everyone was dead or half dead. I walked by dead horses, women with dead babies in their arms. I can’t photograph war for this reason.”

After the war, she worked for the Picture Post in London and Magnum in Paris, where she was an assistant to ever-demanding Henri Cartier-Bresson. She travelled to Iran for Holiday magazine sporting the traditional chador and traversing the vast country alone most of the time. In 1956 – a year before she took the llama photo – Morath came to New York for the first time, although her arrival did not go smoothly. At the height of the Red Scare, she was detained at the airport for carrying a book published by a leftish bookshop. Later, she settled in America, marrying the playwright Arthur Miller, whom she met on the set of The Misfits, whilst she was covering his first wife, Marilyn Monroe.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 25, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Posted in Contact Sheets, Culture

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Tutankhamum | Harry Burton

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In November 1922, almost at the tailend of his expedition sponsored by Lord Carnarvon, Howard Carter finally discovered the tomb which would make him the most famous archeologist outside fiction. Tutankhamum, an insignificant pharaoh who reigned for less than a decade and died young, was buried in a hastily-prepared minor tomb which was largely unrecorded and thus escaped grave-robbers.

After wiring Lord Carnarvon, Carter also engaged the services of Harry Burton. Burton, working for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian department, was widely regarded as the greatest archaeological photographer, and he proved it with this tomb. His photographs of the tomb of Tutankhamum, starting with the intact seal locking his funerary chamber, are both meticulous archaeological surveys and glorious still-lifes.

For the next eight years, Burton devoted his career to carefully cataloguing the riches of Tutankhamum. He was the only photographer authorized to work inside the tomb and took over 1,970 photos, of which 142 were published in February 1923 in The Times, to which Lord Carnarvon had sold the exclusive publishing rights. All of them could be seen on an online gallery at The Griffith Institute, Oxford.

For all its later infamy as a cursed necropolis, the tomb of Tutankhamum did not contain a jinx. Scholars and Egyptologists scoff at the idea, eventhough they themselves were of guilty of spreading these rumors, in order to dissuade the local porters and diggers from pilfering the finds. Lord Carnarvon was the only major member of the expedition to die prematurely. Carter lived for seventeen more years. Carnarvon’s daughter Lady Evelyn who, along with her father and Carter, was among the first to enter the tomb, died only in 1980 at the age of 79.

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Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 19, 2013 at 8:14 pm

Jean Sibelius | Yousef Karsh

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In 1949, when he was photographing a Shell Oil executive in London, Yousuf Karsh overheard his subject taking a call from Finland. The caller was Jean Sibelius, the reclusive Finnish composer, of whom Karsh had always wanted to take a photo. Karsh was already famous in the English-speaking world, but not well-known on the continent, and he requested the oilman to make arrangements for him to travel to Sibelius’ villa in Lake Tuusula.  Karsh remembered their session:

“I arrived at Sibelius’s home “Ainola,” named for his wife Aino, laden with gifts from his admirers – an inscribed manuscript from composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, a warm letter from Olin Downes, the celebrated music critic of the New York Times, a box of his favorite cigars and a bottle of old cognac from the Canadian High Commissioner in London. This last we shared with little Finnish cookies and coffee. His daughter interpreted for the straight-backed patriarch of eighty-four, although there was such a meeting of minds that words became scarcely necessary. The structure of his face reminded me of carved granite, yet with infinite warmth and humanity. This photograph was one of the last taken. He was visibly moved as I told him how the Finnish workers, in their northern Canadian logging camps, doubled their wartime output when his Finlandia was played for them.”

Sibelius had semi-retired from conducting and composing since the late 1920s. He led a lowkey life during the Second World War [during which Britain and Finland became only two democracies in history to ever declare war on each other] and spent his last years quietly obsessing over an eighth symphony he would never get around to composing. By 1949, when he met Karsh, his health was failing. His hands shook, his speech slurred, but the aged composer himself was enthusiastic about session with Karsh. He ran a powerline from the road to his house for Karsh’s floodlights and gave the photographer two whole days for photos. He told Karsh that it was his ‘last chance at a good photograph’.

He was not far wrong. Sibelius died in 1957, at the age of 91.

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This post was suggested over Twitter by Sami Haapavaara ‏(@SHaapavaara). I will be crowdsourcing topics of my next few posts via Twitter and comments. My next few posts will be on readers’ suggestions. What I am thinking: some iconic photo-related topic I will have fun researching. Best.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 1, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Culture

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Brooklyn Museum | Phillip Jones Griffiths

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By all accounts, he was an old, well-dressed man. On the afternoon of 16th December 1999, 72-year old Dennis Heiner feigned illness and sat on the floor at the Brooklyn Museum. As the guards looked away, he ducked beneath the rope, run behind the plexiglass protecting a painting, squeezed white latex paint from a plastic lotion bottle he smuggled past the security.

The object of his ire was “The Painting Of The Virgin Mary,” by Chris Ofili, the British-born Nigerian artist who had drawn a black Madonna image with pornographic cut-outs and a clump of elephant dung. His juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane was received lukewarmly in London and Berlin before a high-profile denunciation by New York’s mayor Rudy Giuliani propelled it to notoriety, and led to it being placed behind plexiglass. Calling it “sick stuff” and “disgusting”, the mayor had vowed to defund and evict the museum (he subsequently lost the First Amendment court-case).

Heiner, a retired teacher, devout Catholic, and pro-life activist, had intended to deface it on the very first day of the exhibit, but huge crowds thwarted his mission; he returned two months later around the holiday season when the crowds would be sparser. He was charged for misdemeanors because the damage to the painting was valued at less than $1,500. This prosecution outraged many; Roger Homan, a Christian art historian, decried, “The perceived offence is not what the artist does to the Virgin Mary but what Dennis Heiner did to the physical image: the subject has ceased to be sacred but the artwork is protected by law.”

Eventually, the controversy turned to the one who took such a perfect photo of Heiner’s vandalism: none other than Phillip Jones Griffiths, the great Magnum photographer. Both Magnum and the photographer claimed that he was simply there with his daughter while Heiner attacked the painting, and that he took nine photos with his point-and-shoot. Many were skeptical and believed Mr. Jones Griffiths had been informed ahead. The staff who escorted Mr. Jones Griffiths out of the museum immediately claimed they heard the photographer talking on his mobile, “I got it.” Further fuel was added by the New York Daily Post, which having bought the rights to the photos, was attempting to prolong the controversy. Heiner, however, denied tipping anyone off before his attack and noted that he did not even know he was being photographed.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 20, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Moonrise, Hernandez

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This blog has never covered the photos of Ansel Adams before, but as I walked this week in Provence in the shadows of Mount Sainte-Victoire and Pénitents des Mées, I thought long and hard about Ansel’s astonishing career.

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His photos, ranging from the Yosemite waterfalls in California and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, sang the ballads of American wilderness. Both via his majestic black and white photos and tireless campaigns, Ansel had revitalized the Sierra Club. Here, his son, Michael, recalls a trip he took with his father — then on an assignment from the Department of the Interior — a trip on which Ansel Adams captured one of his most famous pictures, that of “the expansive heavens stretching above the cemetery of a tiny Western town” in Hernedez, New Mexico:

[It is] probably Ansel’s most famous picture. And I was very fortunate to be there when it was taken. I was seven years old. We were coming back to Santa Fe from north, and Ansel saw this image. He pulled the car off the road very rapidly, got out — got us — there were two of us also with him, and we were trying to get the tripod, and he got the camera on it, and he had made the — looked at the picture and then he wanted his exposure meter, but he couldn’t find it. So, he knew that the luminance of the moon was 250 foot-candles, and from that, he derived the exposure. He took that picture, put the slide back in the film holder, turned the film holder around. Before he could pull the slide to take a second one, all the light in the foreground was gone! …

If you look at the plain image, just the straight image of this, and then you look at this final print, there’s a huge difference, and this was part of Ansel’s magic is what he could do in the darkroom.”

Indeed, the later images had a darker sky than earlier prints. Alas, the photo was so wildly popular that Adams made hundreds of prints of it, and its copies came up for auction so often that dealers and collectors used its prices as an informal benchmark to indicate the strength of the photography prints market in the 1970s. It also inspired a cottage industry among astronomers to determine when exactly the photo was taken (using the moon’s position) for Adams rarely recorded exact dates for his images. Their verdict? : around 5 p.m., one late October/early November day in 1941.

[Footnote: Adams himself had given varying backstories to how he came about to capture the scene in his many photobooks.]

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 19, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Culture, Society

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Maria Callas in Chicago

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The performance of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly in Chicago’s Civic Opera House on the night of November 17th 1955 was an unscheduled one. After two rapturous performances, the great soprano Maria Callas was asked to give one final show, and it was a triumph. But the real drama came only when the opera was over. U.S. Marshal Stanley Pringle (foreground in photo above) and Deputy Sheriff Dan Smith burst into Callas’s dressing room and served her with court summons for a breach of contract. Callas, still in titular Cio-Cio-San’s kimono, was furious; she proclaimed, “I will not be sued! I have the voice of an angel! No man can sue me.”

The moment was immortalized in an iconic photo of Callas, her black eyes aflare with hatred, her mouth curled up with fury. The press dubbed her “The Tigress” from that day onward. She vowed never to return to Chicago. This was just one of many melodramatic episodes for La Callas, who lived an operatic life both on- and off-stage. Born to Greek immigrant parents in New York City, Callas possessed a vocal range that made possible the revival of 19th-century bel canto works, and changed the operatic repertoire for generations to come.

But frequently ill (probably due to her earlier rapid weightloss), Callas had disputes and lawsuits with many a grand operatic stage. On the opening night of Rome season in 1958, she famously walked off after the first act of Bellini’s Norma; the temperamental diva had no understudy and left the President of Italy and most of Rome’s high society in attendance shocked and outraged, for which she was savaged in the Italian press. *

Her career was slowly declining by then; her imperial stature meant that she was still enthusiastically welcomed by the audience, but she herself knew her voice was faltering. After a less-than-adequate season in 1964, she abandoned her signature role of Norma. The next year, she gave up a more relaxing role in Tosca for good. Her last tour after a long retirement in 1973 was not critically well-received. Afterwards, holed up in her Paris apartment, she would spend many a sleepless night with her old recordings, listening to the Voice that had now left her, and died a loner four years later, unable to forgive the world that had forgotten her. She was 53.

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* Typo corrected. I got more emails and DM tweets for this than any other grammar mistake or malapropism I used on this blog in last three years.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

Posted in Culture

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Eve Arnold | Marilyn Monroe

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Although her career was eclectic (as we shall see in coming posts), Eve Arnold is now popularly remembered for her close association with two of last century’s greatest actresses: Joan Crawford and Marilyn Monroe. Although she had been collaborating with the latter for a decade, her best images of Marilyn Monroe came towards its end, at the set of the film The Misfits during the summer of 1960. In what would be her last screen appearance, Monroe gave her best performance playing a vulnerable divorcee juggling the affection of three men, and posed for the most revealing and poignant photos for Arnold as her marriage to playwright behind The Misfits, Arthur Miller was slowly crumbling.

Meanwhile, Nevada acted as the perfect backdrop to this drama. Four years earlier, Miller divorced his first wife in Reno, then on the verge of losing its crown as a divorce and gambling metropolis to Las Vegas. There, he encountered the titular “misfit” cowboys, whom he turned into a short story in Esquire now being filmed by John Huston.

The Misfits was perhaps unique in attracting many great photojournalists to its set. Magnum was given exclusive access to photograph the production, and the prolonged production — plagued by the sizzling Nevadan heat, Monroe’s temperament, Huston’s drink and gambling addictions, and Miller’s constant revisions to the script meant many great names in photojournalism of the last century managed to make it to the desert at one time or another during its four-month shoot.

If you look at photographs taken by such figures as Cornel Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson, Elliott Erwitt, Ernst Haas, Erich Hartman, Inge Morath, and Dennis Stock of poker games, slot machines, roulette tables, and showgirls in Las Vegas, Reno, Carson City and its environs, all of them bore that inevitable date, 1961.

The film’s other lead, Clark Gable died of a heart attack just twelve days after shooting his exhausting final scenes being dragged around by a horse. Monroe divorced from Miller even before the film came out; she died less than two years later. Soon afterwards, Miller married Inge Morath whom he met on the set.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

January 8, 2013 at 9:05 am

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