Horst: Photographer of Style – V & A London

18th November 2014

A large exhibition spanning either several rooms, or one large room divided into sections, houses several hundred images from the early days of his fashion career  up until those from the  early 1950’s, mostly black-&-white with one section, Fashion-in-Colour obviously in colour.  The only really disappointing aspect to the exhibition as far as I was concerned was the fact that the images chosen seemed to limit the span of his career as there were no photographs from his later works than 1950’s, yet his biography details say he continued until 1991; it would have been extremely interesting to see how his later work developed in contrast.

His career seems to have taken off very suddenly and without apparent effort.  One minute he’s studying architecture and within twelve to eighteen months he was contracted to Vogue in Paris.  His learning curve must have been enormous as Vogue insisted that all their photographers used gigantic plate cameras, sumptuous sets and well organised lighting.  Knowing how difficult it is to learn these skills he was seemingly a prodigy.  His connections certainly played an important part in his acceptance and rise within his field, but that doesn’t mean he had no talent, far from it, but his early works for Vogue were constantly criticised by the editor as being far too dark and reliant upon drama rather than on the couture he was meant to be portraying.  This wasn’t solely an individual criticism as the editor made the remark that all the young photographers tended to be this way, just that Horst more so than the rest.  It’s certainly clear why this criticism was leveled when viewing the images themselves, they are very dark and if they weren’t by such a famous artist would be labelled as under exposed.  Their saving grace was that the lighting, like in so many other of his images, was just sufficient to make the clothes appealing, no more.

Having had to study surrealism, to a very limited degree, in one of the modules of my current course, I was very surprised when confronted by the surrealist style images that Horst is attributed with.  Whilst Dali, possibly the most famous surrealist painter ever, was a close friend whose image he made more than once, has definitely coloured the impressions of many as to what constitutes surrealism, it certainly didn’t seem to rub off on Horst.  His images didn’t appear at all surrealistic to me, which I’ve put down to ignorance on my part of the movement, they seemed to me to be very well crafted portraits with props.  Which was OK with me as I went along hoping to see a master portraitists work, which I did in spades.

The thing I was most interested in discovering was the lighting techniques he used and the angles, the actual poses themselves weren’t of any real interest as they are extremely dated and wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny from a modern artists.  What was also interesting was the degree to which the images were altered in post-processing.  Today we consider Photoshop as something incredible in its achievements with modelling the parts of an image, how much more skilled were the people who worked with negatives to achieve the change in a womans’ figure, the removal of a body portion that didn’t fit, nips and tucks in clothing?  Horst spared no effort at all to ensure he got the image he wanted, whether it was true to life or not.  His most celebrated image of a woman in a corset for an advertisement is a clear case in point.  There are a number of images on display showing the before and after of this shoot and it’s very clear that a great deal of hard work went into the posing and lighting, but just as much or maybe more went into the post-processing.

Horst had a range of interests within the photographic world and was one of the earliest users of colour, his work in the 1930’s in colour are very rich and highly saturated fashion images, which whilst arresting in a sea of black-&-white weren’t something I took any lessons from other than my admiration for him making such good work in what must have been a very difficult medium at that time.

There are so many images to see that I became overloaded and left after 2 hours, but there was sufficient to have kept anyone entranced for very much longer if they have the stamina.  I doubt that I’d return as I think I picked up all the learning points I wanted from that visit, but I’d recommend anyone who has an interest in portraiture and lighting to make a visit.

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One Response to Horst: Photographer of Style – V & A London

  1. Catherine says:

    Obviously a well-worth visit Eddy. Good as well to be reminded that photographers were manipulating images way back!

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