Horst: Photographer of Style - exhibition review

image: Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May, 1941. © Condé Nast/Horst Estate

Horst P. Horst (1906-1999) was one of the great photographers of 20th century fashion and high society. German by birth, he initially studied design and carpentry under Gropius, before moving to Paris in 1930 to work as an apprentice to Le Corbusier. Now, if that wasn't heady enough, it was here that Horst met his mentor and partner Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. The Baron taught him not just about photography but expanded the young mans’ artistic horizons with visits to galleries in Paris and London. He also introduced him to many influential creative people.

A great success as a photographer from the start, Horst was encouraged to work at French Vogue and quickly became its principal photographer. In fact, over his long career, he produced 94 covers for the magazine.

Throughout the 30s, Horst acquired an international reputation as a fashion and society photographer. In his work of this time, one can see him experimenting with expressionist lighting and form. He also introduces more and more surrealist elements into the pictures. However, these are all underpinned by a classical sensibility that remains with Horst throughout his career. One can also see traces of Cecil Beaton, whom Horst knew. Yet despite all these influences, he refines a style all his own. At times formal, always dramatic and often playful.

The first part of the exhibition naturally enough focuses on Horst's early work in Paris. From the start his visual inventiveness and technical skills are apparent. Beautifully lit, sumptuous and with great depth of field, the photographs on display really capture that Interwar period glamour. The pictures are also beautifully and harmoniously composed.

We see how Horst meticulously developed his style in the studio. Every element is considered, every figure formally posed so as to fit as part of the whole composition. Little or nothing is left to chance. A rare film shows Horst working in his studio. He can be seen using a large plate camera. One is on display nearby.

Horst's social connections were impeccable. In addition to stars such as Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence, he took defining portraits of Hollywood royalty. Rita Hayworth, Joan Crawford and Vivian Leigh all posed for his camera. I particularly liked his photograph of Bette Davies that playfully reveals her intelligence and humour. It was also a pleasure to see the faces of the many models he so elegantly captured.

One of the most interesting aspects of this current show is the emphasis on Horst's photography beyond the worlds of fashion and society. I really liked his images of ancient Persepolis. In particular, the Bull' Head in all it's dramatic contrast. For documentary work, he used the famous Rollerflex camera. An example being on display.

We see also his accomplished, beautiful nudes and lovely patterns derived from natural forms. These were produced during a period when Horst became dissatisfied at American Vogue. The show explores the wider ranges of his photographic activity and includes the process that led to famous images like the influential Mainbocher Corset.

The exhibition examines the influence of surrealism on his work. We see the evolution of his collaborations with Salvador Dali. In addition to the photographs, sketchbooks are also included. These are interesting as they illustrate how Horst developed certain visual ideas. They show his classical sensibility.

On display too are garments that add to the period feel of the exhibition. Created by the designers of the time photographed by Horst. He was on friendly terms with designers like Chanel and Schiaparelli.

Suddenly we are in a world of colour. Laid out before us are the editions of Vogue, the covers of which his photographs adorn. On the walls are 25 beautiful large scale colour reproductions of pictures taken from the Conde Nast Archive. They are derived from Horst's original transparencies. I spoke to two of the people involved in the restoration of these pictures. Not only was the most technically advanced means used to recapture the quality of the originals, but extensive research into period colour products was made. The results speak for themselves. Although retouched and printed larger than originally intended, they make a huge impact on the spectator in evoking the 'look' of the time. Horst's sense of colour is a joy to behold.

Later in his life, Horst received many honours and much recognition. He photographed the luxurious interiors of the rich and famous. A three sided projection evokes many of these pictures, and an interactive console allows the visitor to examine in greater detail those whom Horst pictured.

In conclusion, this exhibition is a revealing portrait of the artist. It will appeal to those who appreciate good photography and simultaneously relish the faded glamour of a great lost age of fashion and high society.

(C) Gideon Hall 2014


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