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Horst P. Horst

Horst: Photographer of Style


Reviewed by Naomi Itami / 08.01.15


In the current post-meltdown climate, fashion photography is synonymous with luxury brands  featuring celebrities and pop stars in risk-averse Photoshopped perfection. The V&A retrospective Horst: Photographer of Style breathes fresh air into photography’s largest industry, by looking back to the form’s beginnings.

Meticulously and imaginatively curated by Susanna Brown, themed rooms treat the viewer to a chronological tour spanning Horst’s 60-year career that justifiably centres on his early fashion work in 1930’s Paris. The 250 mostly vintage photographs are shown alongside Horst’s sketchbooks, drawings and letters, rare film clips of him at work, digitally installed images and magazine articles, as well as haute couture garments from the V&A’s permanent collection.

I had the opportunity to get some of Ms Brown’s insights into the most compelling elements of the show:

NI: What is your favourite work or series, and why?

SB: My favourites change from one day to the next! The project Patterns from Nature is fascinating and I love the dazzling colour images for Vogue from the late 1930s onwards. Up until now, most of the colour pictures have only existed as transparencies, since a transparency could be plated and printed on the magazine page without the need to create a photographic print. It was thrilling to be able produce new prints from the historic transparencies in collaboration with the Condé Nast Archive and the printer Ken Allen.

NI: What did you find most surprising about Horst’s work when you were collating and curating the show?

SB: I first visited the Horst Estate about five years ago with my colleague Martin Barnes (Senior Curator of Photographs at the V&A) and as we waded through boxes and boxes of vintage gelatin silver and platinum prints, we were struck not only by the enormous range and quality of Horst’s work across 60 years, but also by the multiple ways in which his life and photographic interests connect to the V&A collection. I wanted to weave together those strands – photography, couture fashion, interior design, architecture, theatre and performance and Asian art. The exhibition and book highlight the diversity of Horst’s career, showing not only the classic images that have become icons of twentieth century photography, but also the unpublished and little known photographs and fascinating drawings and notebooks which reveal a great deal about his creative process.


Indeed this comprehensive exhibition looks beyond Horst’s glamorous fashion photography and celebrity portraits by including the work for which he is less famous: male nudes, travel photography, photo-collages and lifestyle interiors.  All reveal a disciplined approach to classical form, a sculptural use of light and shadow, and a pared-down, stylised approach to image-making that were to become his trademark. Horst’s early preoccupation with Bauhaus and his architectural apprenticeship with Le Corbusier are evident throughout, as well as revealing earlier Germanic influences celebrating the Hellenic ideal of the human body as heroic and athletic. Controversially, this same neo-classical approach to the human form can be found most famously in the work of Leni Riefenstahl whose images of the 1936 Berlin Olympics also evoked classical antiquity and functioned as homages to the body beautiful.

Horst’s career as a self-made German-American immigrant mirrors the rise of photography in the fashion industry, which was quickly replacing illustration as technology and printing techniques developed. By the time Horst began photographing the collections of Lanvin, Vionnet and Schiaparelli for Paris Vogue in the 1930’s, professional models were in short supply, so friends and acquaintances of the magazine staff were summoned, with some (like Horst favourite, Lud) picked off the street. Horst’s models were statuesque and shapely, their bodies emphasised to illustrate the fall and sweep of the gowns they modelled. Despite Condé Nast’s insistence on the use of a cumbersome 10×8 plate camera to capture the rich detail of the garments, Horst instead created images of dream-like fantasy, evoking a mood of impossible perfection.

Displayed in near darkness, the spotlit vintage prints’ inherent drama are highlighted here, as is Horst’s signature use of chiaroscuro lighting that often took over two days to set up. With over 90 Vogue covers shot over the course of his long career, the viewer is able to trace not only the trajectory of women’s fashion, but also the profound changes in their societal roles. By the 1970’s when colour film made its debut, an athletic, fun-loving emancipated woman takes centre-stage in the 25 poster-sized Vogue covers displayed in the final room. The thread of consistency throughout Horst’s fashion photography however is his inimitable sense of style and classicism. As he said in 1984, “[f]ashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again.”

Fashion photography’s commercial intent can at times relegate it to a lesser status than fine art photography. Though Horst’s influence on future generations of photographers is secure, his Patterns of Nature (1946) series stands out as an anomaly within his oeuvre as the only body of work that diverges both in style and content. As a personal project partially inspired by Karl Blossfeldt’s richly detailed photographs of plants and referencing the New Objectivity movement of the 1920’s and 30’s, these surprising, black and white photographs of the vegetable and mineral worlds eschewed the highly orchestrated constructions of his portrait and fashion work. Instead he used available light and extreme close-up photography to create abstract studies of the graphic forms of nature. These kaleidoscope cut-outs were then printed in reverse, forming mirror images, some of which were collaged into grids. Recalling Rorschach’s ink blots, the familiar became uncanny as the subjects were removed from their natural settings, revealing strikingly modern examinations of the natural world’s beautiful and intelligent design.

Horst: Photographer of Style succeeds as an engrossing, vivid portrait of one of fashion photography’s most prolific and imaginative practitioners, whose career from the pre-war years to the 1980’s traces the arc of the photographer’s life and times. A classicist, modernist, and even surrealist vision combined with an innate ability to adapt to changing times underpin his longevity. Master of light and illusion, Horst’s unique contributions to both fashion and portraiture stand as testaments to a time when artistry took precedence over crass commercialism. Nonetheless, Horst made no pretence to being anything other than a working photographer, creating beautiful images that have stood the test of time.

Installation view of ‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


Installation view of ‘Horst: Photographer of Style’ at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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