In January 2015 I went to see the exhibition Horst a photographer of style at the Victoria and Albert museum and I remember being very impressed by the work so much so that I brought a copy of the catalogue. When I was researching Richard Avedon and Irving Penn for the reviews I wrote earlier in my log book Horst’s name came up several times as a leading example an earlier generation of fashion photographers so I decided to go back to my copy of the catalogue and rather belatedly write up my thoughts on the exhibition.
Although Horst was certainly an innovator he works does seem quite dated compared to the work of Penn and Avedon. In some cases the clothes and style of his models is so 1930s but also a lot of the poses he uses seem seem very much in a art deco style rather than the more modernist style of Penn and Avedon.
Horst is perhaps best known for his dramatic use of light and contrast in his early fashion work he spent a long time working on perfecting the lighting of the clothes and as a result often had his models faces very lowly lit of even in darkness. His style very much echoed what is known as Chiaroscuro which was developed by Caravaggio among others in renaissance and later oil painting.
The three fashion shots below are fairly extreme examples on Horst black and white fashion work. Light is used carefully capture the line and the way the material of the dresses drapes but the models are largely anonymous. This is approach very much different from supermodel era when at times the model is perhaps more important that the dress.
Despite being a regular contributor to Vogue in the 1930s Horst’s Dramatic lighting style was not universally popular indeed in 1937 the chief editor of Vogue drafted a memo that included the phrase
“I have been lecturing Horst about the lack of light in his photography. We have simply go to overcome this desire on the part of our photographers to shroud everything in deepest mystery”
Even Horst’s portrait work in the 1930s was characterised by a carefully controlled play on light and shadows as illustrated by his photograph of Marlene Dietrich below
Horst was also relaised the valueof retouching writing copious instructions for the people who retouched his work. Many of his photographers were extensively retouched before being published, one famous example included in the V&A exhibition was his picture of the Mainbocher Corest that was taken in 1939 in the published version shown on the right below the corset appears to perfectly wrap around the model but in the original unretouched picture on the left the corset appears very rigid on the left hand side of the models back and really doesn’t fit well at all. This picture is not only a great example of Horsts skill in balancing light but also the skill of the retoucher who had to carefully paint in the left had side of the models back up to her shoulder to give the illusion of a perfect fit.
In the 1930s and early 1940s Horst became one of the first fashion photographers to embrace the emerging technology of colour photography. His work with colour started out being quite different to his work in black and white his pictures had bright saturated colours with some carefully placed shadows but the “lack of light” was no longer in evidence. When looking through the exhibition at the V&A and reading that all the colour photographs were new prints I did wonder if the these modern prints were much more saturated than the originals. However, surviving copies of Vogue that contain this work show that this probably was not the case.
Later in the 1940s he seem to return to embrace Chiaroscuro in his colour work as in the photograph below that was taken in 1947 which show much more dramatic lighting that his earlier work above.
Although Horst survived until 1999 and continued taking photographs throughout his life he moved away from fashion photographer at the end of the 1940s