Erwin Blumenfeld (1897–1969) was a photographer and artist born in Germany. He was best known for his fashion photography published in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and 1950s. In addition to fashion photography, he produced an extensive body of celebrity portraiture, fine-art photography (including black and white nudes), drawings, and Dada collages. He made photographs while a resident of Germany, the Netherlands, France, and the United States, and has been called “one of the most innovative and influential photographers of the 20th century.”
Blumenfeld was born 26 January 1897 in Berlin. He was of Jewish descent. His parents were Albert Blumenfeld and Emma Blumenfeld, née Cohn. He had a younger brother Heinz and an older sister Annie
In 1908 he was given a camera and started taking and developing photographs. Blumenfeld considered himself a photographer from this point on, for example taking a self-portrait dressed as Pierrot when he was 14 years old. However, he had no formal training in photography.
Blumenfeld began his career working in Berlin as an apprentice dressmaker to Moses and Schlochauer in 1913. He was drafted into the German army during World War I as an ambulance driver. He planned to desert the army, but his mother had him arrested.
Moving to Amsterdam in 1918, he toiled in the ladies’ lingerie departments of department stores. He opened a store specialising in ladies’ handbags in Amsterdam in 1923, the “Fox Leather Company.” It was situated at the Kalverstraat 116 in the center of the city.
After moving to new premises in Amsterdam in 1932, Blumenfeld discovered a fully equipped darkroom in the building, and he started to photograph some of his female customers (often nude). He participated in his first exhibitions at Carl van Lier’s gallery nearby, and in 1935 the French magazine Photographie published one of his first photographs for the first time.
Meanwhile, the leather store went bankrupt in 1936. Following a move to Paris on 26 January 1936, Blumenfeld was commissioned to take the portraits of artists including Georges Rouault and Henri Matisse, and he secured his first advertising work for Monsavon. Among other subjects during this period, he photographed Josephine Baker, Cecil Beaton, Leonor Fini, Valeska Gert, Yvette Guilbert, and François Mauriac. Blumenfeld quickly captured the attention of photographer Cecil Beaton who helped him secure a contract with French Vogue in 1937. His family went to Paris, and he briefly went to New York in 1939.
After Blumenfeld returned to France, during World War II, Blumenfeld and his family spent time in Vézelay with Le Corbusier and Romain Rolland. He was incarcerated at Camp Vernet and other concentration camps. His daughter Lisette (who had just turned 18) was incarcerated at the Gurs internment camp. Luckily Blumenfeld was bunked next to the husband of the woman Lisette was bunked next to. Through postcards and letters the Blumenfeld family of five managed to reunite. In 1941 they obtained a visa and escaped to North Africa and then New York.
Upon Blumenfeld’s arrival in the U.S., Carmel Snow of Harper’s Bazaar put him under contract. After three years, he began freelance work for American Vogue. His first double page spread in Vogue on May 15, 1944 was a photograph shot in 1938 of his daughter Lisette’s legs. Over the next fifteen years, Blumenfeld’s work was featured on numerous Vogue covers and in a variety of publications including Flair, Life, and Look. During this period, he also worked as photographer for the Dayton’s department store in Minneapolis and produced advertising campaigns for cosmetics clients such as Helena Rubinstein, Elizabeth Arden, and L’Oreal.
By 1950 he was reported to be the highest-paid photographer in the world. Among his models were Carmen Dell’Orefice and Lisa Fonssagrives. He photographed more covers for Vogue than any photographer before or since.
In the late 1950s, he also began to create motion pictures, hoping to use them commercially. Captured between 1958 and 1964, these were mainly pilots for beauty commercials, aimed at his key clients: Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden, and L’Oreal. His idea for advertising beauty products on film was described as “ahead of its time.” Toward the end of his life, he also began work on his autobiography (which was unpublished during his lifetime) and on his book My One Hundred Best Photos (which, despite his being a renowned fashion photographer, included only four of his fashion images).
In 1921 Blumenfeld married Lena Citroen, the cousin of his friend Paul Citroen. They had three children: Lisette (later Lisette Blumenfeld Georges), Heinz (Henry), and Franck (Yorick). From 1936 until 1949 his daughter Lisette was regularly in the studio and in the darkroom with him. Furthermore, Lisette was the muse of his career; Blumenfeld photographed her more than any other model.
Blumenfeld had affairs with Kathleen Levy-Barnett, who married Henry, and with Marina Schinz, who married Lawrence Rubin of Knoedler Gallery. The relationship with Schinz began in 1961 when she was 19, and led to her being mentioned in a codicil to his will as “manager” of his artistic works a job which she henceforth neglected.
Blumenfeld died of a heart attack 4 July 1969 in Rome, Italy. He had not taken medication for his heart condition, and had been intentionally running up and down the Spanish Steps to cause a heart attack. Schinz did not call an ambulance.
He left his estate, including thousands of prints, transparencies, and collages, to his three children and wife. Schinz took possession of an unknown number of prints and negatives disregarding Blumenfeld’s will. His autobiography and his book My One Hundred Best Photos were published posthumously, in 1975 and 1979 respectively. Although the “first major retrospective” of his art occurred only in 1996, his work is thought to have influenced many photographers (e.g., Irving Penn, William Klein, and Richard Avedon), and between 2004 and 2013 at least six books containing his work were published. As of 2015, no U.S. museum has held a solo retrospective exhibition of his work.