Monday, 12 January 2015

Horst: Photographer of Style at the V&A Museum, London

Carmen Dell’Orefice, age 16, and photographer Horst P. Horst, who are both being photographed by Leonard McCombe for Life Magazine, 1947, via

Long before I started paying attention to the names of fashion photographers, I knew the work of Horst. For me, his playful, colourful shots epitomise the charm and desirability of a 1940s or a 1950s Vogue, whether Muriel Maxwell putting on her lipstick, or the model balancing the beach ball on her toes, to form the ‘O’ of the title.

The recent V&A exhibition, Horst: Photographer of Style, brings the pages of a vintage Vogue to life. Rather than isolating Horst’s photographs in a typical gallery 'white cube', this exhibition celebrates their context. It balances his artistic endeavours, such as his experiments with surrealism in the 1930s, alongside his client work: the reality of life for most creatives today. And, of course, the two do meet. Horst’s surrealist-influenced images were loved by Paris Vogue, for example, but were requested to be simplified to suit the tastes of American Vogue.

The exhibition focuses on the substance, as much of the style as Horst’s photography. There’s a display of fashion ensembles, drawn from the V&A’s collections, that accompanies his photographs from the 1930s (the very stuff of A Time To Be Born). The models are credited too, where possible, reinforcing the impression of this favourites models who he - and Vogue - worked with again and again - these include the Powers Girls Helen Bennett and Muriel Maxwell, as well as Lud and Lisa Fonssagrives and a very young Carmen Dell’Orefice.

Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate, via V&A

You also get an idea of the process behind each shoot, still part of the process today (albeit in slightly more sophisticated forms) whether set design or retouching. It is fascinating to see Horst’s sketch establishing the famous Mainbocher corset photograph - an image that has seemingly has seemingly transcended its context as a fashion photograph. The reality of life on a fashion magazine is highlighted in a film based on outtakes from the 1946 film, ‘Fashion means Business’, where Dorian Leigh is styled by Muriel Maxwell (now in her fashion editor role) and Priscilla Peck for a shot by Horst for Vogue. His photographs are then selected by Jessica Daves and Alexander Liberman, and laid out as part of the feature before, ultimately, making it into the pages of the magazine.

The exhibition was not all about fashion, however. Photographs from his travels in the middle east and studies from nature demonstrate his same careful attention to dark and light. Then there’s the wall populated with his glamorous portraits of the stars of stage and screen.

Vogue, 1 June 1940, via Vogue

After these controlled images, the explosion of colour as his work gets into the 1940s comes as even more of a hit to the senses. In a room dedicated to his 90 plus covers taken for Vogue, a huge glass cases displays every single one of the cover, dating from 1935 to 1963, as well as showing huge prints, developed from the surviving original transparencies at Conde Nast. Their scale gives an idea of the impressive size of the press in the 1940s and 50s. These images may be the most familiar to me, but still appeared every bit as desirable. Whether Jean Patchett in pink or Bale Paley looking cool in a black and powder blue combination, they made me want to go shopping - what a pity the clothes are no longer in the shops these 60 plus years later!

I was talking to a friend whose colleagues had taken a group of photography students to see this exhibition, as well of the display celebrating the work of Guy Bourdin, currently on at Somerset House. Comparing Horst’s work to Bourdin’s slick, sexy 1970s style, the students generally preferred Horst’s work, mainly because it was kinder to the women. Looking at the images, I realised how true this was. Horst built a rapport with his models and the result was an image that was warm and playful, but no less glamorous for it. These are the kind of woman you would like to be, regardless of time and trend. Does the fact that the students thought this too indicate this kinder sort of fashion photography will hold sway in the years to come too? I like to hope so.

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