In 1937, the photographer Erwin Blumenfeld coaxed Carmen Visconti out of her clothes to model for his camera. It wasn’t her first time posing nude. More then fifty years before, she’d been the nubile subject of The Kiss by Auguste Rodin, one of the 19th century’s most iconic sculptures. By photographing her ravaged eighty-year-old body his Paris studio, Blumenfeld was not only showing the passage of time, but also signaling that photography was the fine art of his era.
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Blumenfeld made his living shooting fashion for magazines such as Coronet and Vogue when Visconti posed for him, and his magazine work increased exponentially over the following few decades. By the ’50s, living in New York City, he was the highest-paid fashion photographer in the world. Yet as an important new retrospective at the Jeu de Paume shows, commercial success never corrupted his vision of photography as successor to sculpture and painting. On the contrary, he used the materials of fashion photography to make fine art in the popular media, arguably surpassing even The Kiss in visibility – if not name recognition – with the ubiquity of his magazine covers and spreads.
It’s in this respect that Blumenfeld was most radical, especially when his camerawork transformed fashion models into semi-abstract compositions. To an even greater extent than contemporaries such as Edward Steichen, he collapsed the avant-garde distinction between high and low culture, demonstrating that any aesthetic advance could be appreciated by everyone – if it was made photographic.
But as much as Blumenfeld was a populist (and a Dadaist in his youth), he was not really a predecessor to Pop Art, Fluxus, or other 1960s assaults on cultural elitism. His motivations for making Vogue’s fashion spreads as formally advanced as Picasso’s canvases were visual, not conceptual. In his biography, he boasted of his ability to “smuggle in art”, unnoticed by philistine “arse directors”. While this depiction was hardly fair (especially given that one of the arse directors most supportive him was Alexander Liberman), his insistence on the fine-arts potential of mass media still resonates: As museums come to look more like fashion magazines – slickly-designed spaces strewn with branding from corporate sponsors – there’s never been a better time for fashion magazines to become more like museums.