Horst at the V&A: the man who turned fashion photography into art

Horst for Vogue in 1951: Bathing suit by Brigance, modelled by Jean Patchett

Horst for Vogue in 1951: Bathing suit by Brigance, modelled by Jean Patchett. Photo: not for reuse

London’s V&A is hosting the definitive retrospective of photographic legend Horst P. Horst, the German-American visionary who brought a new sense of imagination to fashion photography. 

Gracing hundreds of thousands of coffee tables around the world via the glamorous covers of Vogue, Horst’s dramatic use of light, form and composition pushed him to become one of the 20th century’s photographic masters. Born Horst P. Bohrmann in Germany in 1906, Horst studied design in Hamburg before moving to Paris to learn under the architect Le Corbusier. He quickly found his home among the influential artistic milieu, befriending the star photographer of Paris Vogue Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, who became his mentor, collaborator and lover.  

Horst’s portrait portfolio quickly became a who’s who of the Parisian artistic and aristocratic elite, featuring Greta Garbo, Salvador Dalί and Coco Chanel. By the mid-1930s, his talent for creating arresting images had hoisted him to the top of Paris Vogue’s photographers, where he launched model’s careers with a single shot. Indeed, Horst started a trend followed by subsequent masters of fashion photography – Penn, Avedon and David Bailey – elevating the model to a celebrity status.

Lud

Horst for Vogue, 1938: Lanvin corsage and Maubousin jewels, modelled by Lud. Photo: not for reuse

Horst used his expert understanding of light and shadow to deftly capture the luxurious textures of pre-war Parisian eveningwear. Opulent silks and satins by designers such as Lanvin and Mainbocher dazzled in front of his lens, challenging the limitations of black and white photography. His signature aesthetic married bold lighting with elegant silhouettes, drenched in a sense of fantasy and glamour.

This studio shot for Paris Vogue in 1938 is a striking example. There’s a palpable lightness to the flowing chiffon, jumping out against the crisp Modernist blocks. The clean aesthetic allows the latest accessories to shine – an elaborate head corsage by Lanvin, jewels by Maubousin.  Horst’s trademark lighting bathes half the model’s face in shadow, shrouding her in alluring mystery. Ludmila Feodoseyevna or ‘Lud’ was a Russian émigré who delivered dresses to the Vogue studios until she was spotted by Horst aged 18. Unlike his earlier classical compositions, this disembodied female torso carries elements of Surrealism; by then extending its influence across culture.

Horst for Vogue, 1941. Photo: Not for reuse.

Horst for Vogue, 1941. Photo: not for reuse.

In 1939 Horst fled Paris for New York. He enlisted in US army and applied for US citizenship, changing his name to Horst P. Horst.  His photography took a different path after the war – he produced a collection of close ups exploring nature’s patterns; a travel series documenting the ruins of Persia’s capital, Persepolis; another on the annual migration of the Qash’qai clan. Diana Vreeland, then the editor of rival Harper’s Bazaar, congratulated Horst on “the most exciting and thrilling things that any of us have had to look at for years and years and years!”

In 1996 Horst received the Master of Photography award, honouring the talent of a man who, together with his collaborator Huene, turned fashion photography into art.

Horst: Photographer of Style will be at the V&A until January 4 2015. Click here for more info

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