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Blumenfeld Studio Exhibition at Somerset House

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by Chris Henniker (subscribe)
There are 6m postcodes in London, what's happening in yours?
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City Lights ©The Estate of Erwin Blumenfeld / Somerset House website

The professions get a bad press these days. Journalists who bribe to get a story to bankers using loopholes to get clients off paying, to people with no talent winning The Turner Prize, where next? Politicians being honest? Photographers plagiarising other work? One professional, a photographer called Erwin Blumenfeld is laid bare like his exposures for American fashion magazines between 1940-1960 at Somerset House until the first of September.

The exhibition exposes his exposures from his Dada inspired early work of the 1930's, through his wartime high fashion meets propaganda photographs, to the changing tastes of the early 1960's. It also lays bare his journey both across Europe and the Atlantic and as an artist. His work of this period's experimental nature combining thermos of high glamour and avant-garde techniques of solarisation, filters and even using a pane of glass to break up a female form in homage to Picasso evoked an America at its most optimistic, miles away from a bleak Europe decimated by war and emigration, from which he emigrated, both in terms of geography and in condition. In an interview, Blumemfeld said of his relationship to America:

"I resolved to smuggle culture into my new country by way of thanks for accepting me."

While this may smack of biting the hand that fed him, his contribution to American photography is not one that existed in isolation, as I took a liking to a somewhat surreal image of two Eyelashes called 'The Gaze'. It was somewhat sexually provocative and I wondered whether Blumenfeld was reducing the 'Mona Lisa' to its component parts. Indeed, he drew on the past and reinvented it with his allusion to classical antiquity and Vermeer's 'Girl With A Pearl Earring'.

What made his work all the more fascinating and exciting is that there was a tension between what his artistic vision and what his paymasters expected. His propaganda photography really put it in print large, as his advertising photo for the American Red Cross demonstrates. You would expect the Red Cross to have a stark image of the horrors of war, but he uses the Red Cross itself as a centrepiece and the techniques of fashion photography and the avant-garde in what could be seen as a direct aesthetic attack on fascism itself. Given Blumenfeld was German Jewish, this would have been his weapon in the Arsenal of Democracy as much as Detroit was churning out tanks and aircraft.

His passion for his art is self evident in his painstaking attention to detail, which as an amateur photographer, I envy. Even in something as minimalist as 'The Gaze', I really could see the painstaking work done in retouching the photograph. I even wonder whether I'll reach the standard he did, but he said in an interview with Commercial Camera in 1948 that I have one thing in common with him:

"I was an amateur- I am an amateur- and I intend to stay an amateur. To me am amateur photographer is one who is in love with taking pictures, a free soul who can photograph. What he likes and likes what he photographs."

By that definition I am an amateur, so that is the definition that I accept.

Currently I am absorbed in magazine and advertising illustration, and I remain as true an amateur than I was at ten. The wonder that the camera can reproduce anything shown to it still astounds me; and I am strongly determined to show the lens of s'more exciting, dramatic and beautiful way of presenting life.

What about you?

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When: 23 May–1 September 2013
Where: East Wing Galleries, East Wing
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