Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann (1906-1999) was one of the most outstanding photographers of the 20th century. He was born in Germany where he studied at the Bauhaus and then moved to America where he joined Vogue in 1931 and became one of the biggest fashion photographers of all time. In his 60-year-long career, he produced stunning works, perfecting his incredible use of light.
The good news is that a great number of his works are now on show at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The exhibition runs until the 5th of January and it would be a real shame to miss it, whether you are passionate about fashion, photographs, films, arts or you simply want to spend a lovely couple of hours you should most definitely have a look.
The structure of the exhibition allows you to get a real overview of Horst’s career and life, from his beginnings at Vogue until his final years, you can easily understand the developing process of his photographic technique. Also, at the entrance of each room you can find descriptions and stories about that period of his life that make you appreciate even more all the amazing photographs you are about to see.
Most of the works at the Victoria and Albert Museum are in black and white, that is until you get to the second last room where there is an explosion of colour: a big room filled with a collection of Vogue covers between 1935 and 1963. In those years, Horst created over 90 cover images for Vogue. These were some of my favourites. Besides giving you an idea of what a difference coloured pictures must have made for magazines, you can also see how the idea of fashion and women has transformed over the years.
I believe that Horst became what he was because of his classic style; I personally think that what is classical never dies and always ‘fits in’ with the time. This is probably why when you look at his photographs, even if they were taken in the 1930s you don’t get the feeling that they are out-dated, they are indeed very actual and for all you know someone could have taken them yesterday. I think this is one of the qualities that made him major artist.
His images are an incredible combination of the work of art directors, models, fashion editors, studio assistants and set technicians. They all collaborated with Horst to create timeless photographs that were destined to remain in history. Walking through the rooms you can read what some of these people have said over the years about Horst. The quote that struck me the most was one by Lisa Fonssagrives who is widely acknowledged as being the first supermodel- she said about him: “I became a model because he made me one.” There are many portraits of Lisa in this exhibition, and in every picture he somehow made her look different and special. His ability to ‘play with light’ is something that goes beyond our understanding of light and photography; it is not a case that he has been described as ‘the master of studio lighting’. Another one of his favourite models, Carmen Dell’Orefice, said that Horst could understand how light falls on an object and that he saw her as a ‘sculpture to be projected through his photographs.’
In one of the last rooms you can admire Mainbocher Corset (1939), which is possibly Horst’s most famous and iconic image – the subject is Madame Bernon and she is wearing a back-lacing corset. She is depicted as a goddess of love, a femme fatale; her body is perfect as that of a classical statue. Horst managed to enclose beauty, passion, eros, sensuality and charm in one single shot, and many critics in fact consider this a masterpiece.
Horst’s art wasn’t just about taking pictures of beautiful models in pretty outfits, it was about combining light with darkness and shadow. It was about creating a story within each photograph he took. In the exhibition you can watch a video that shows Horst at a photo shoot and it is fascinating to see how much work and people there are behind one image. Especially after seeing this exhibition, I started to wonder: how is it possible that artists like Horst could create such astonishing photographs with how ‘little’ they had? At the time when Horst, and other memorable artists like him started out, there was no space for tricks, Photoshop, Instagram or special effects; it was just the photographer and the camera.