Whilst researching fashion photography for my upcoming shoot at Canon Shoot the Show at London Fashion Week, I spotted that there is an exhibition of Horst at the V&A museum London from 6th September – 4th January. I felt it would provide a great opportunity to get some ideas about what can be done with light and see how fabrics and models behave in front of the camera. This more than lived up to my expectations and proved to be a source of inspiration not only for the fashion shoot but for the rest of my photography.
At the start of the exhibition you are introduced to Horst through a brief biography and a corridor of black and white photographs depicting fashion from the 1930s. This moves through the development of his style with light or in some cases the lack of it which makes some images very “dark” and quite moody. It clearly shows the lengths he went to create these images, using elaborate backgrounds and sets, in some cases at quite some cost.
At the end of this section of the exhibition were a set of mannequins displayed with some copies of the dresses worn in some of the previous images. What struck me was how small women were (1930s). Apparently the museum had to have the mannequins especially made for this exhibition as modern mannequins are too big! The other thing I noticed about the dresses on display was the lack of colour in them, cream or black, although what they lacked in colour they certainly made up for in pattern.
The next open room in the exhibition focussed on Horst’s time with Salvador Dali. Here was the truly weird and I really wasn’t sure about some images such as the Lobster picture (and I like surrealism). You are able to see Horst’s sketch books and a good selection of images that show how Horst experimented and managed to create some truly surreal
Moving on through to his next section, “The wall of Fame” as I called it, with many of the Hollywood greats of the time. Marlene Dietrich in an iconic picture looking to me more natural and less dramatic than I have seen in other pictures of her. There were many stars including Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, Vivien Leigh, Noël Coward, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford. You can see how Horst showed his skills at manipulating light in these images, which is almost as important as the stars themselves. These effects have been mimicked by many since (Madonna springs to mind in her music video, aptly named”Vogue”).images.
The next section was a very small but significant section on Horst’s travels and some natural world images, the first on display to include colour. The travel images mainly focus on his stay in Iran in the 1940s after falling in love with a British diplomat, Valentine Crawford. These include shots of traditional tribesmen going about their lives or naturally posed in portraits and several of key landmarks. Here I got a sense of “recording time” particularly in his set of images of Persepolis, a place I have been fortunate enough to visit and photograph (including some of the same ruins and reliefs Horst shot). This section made me smile as I recognised these landmarks and remembered taking similar if not the same angles and views myself.
Next I came to the small but interesting natural world exhibits where I could see the influence of his time spent with Dali coupled with his love of playing with light to create shapes and views you might not normally associate with this type of subject. The crisp stunning detailed images of the shells really caught my eye. I was interested to see how he managed to create artistic and pleasing images void of people, different from the images people normally associate him with. His idea was to produce patterns and repeats that could be used for wallpaper and textiles.
Nearing the end of the exhibition you are dazzled by the section on his time producing covers for Vogue magazine. Starting from 1935 there were some 90 covers in a display cabinet (they looked like original copies) with some key editions enlarged on the walls. Many of the covers reflected the surrealism I’d seen earlier in the exhibition, but were now in colour, whilst others went back to his work in the 1930s. The sheer riot of colour was an assault on the eyes, all be it a pleasant one! As the covers spanned several decades, they documented without words women and fashion through the years and the changing manner in which women have been portrayed.
The final section of images are almost sculpture like photographs of nude male men in a variety of tasteful poses which again accentuate the shadows created by light from different angles on the body. Here I saw that it was not the face (as in many other of his images) but the body and it’s form (in Greek god style) that he was looking to get the viewer to focus on. All of these were in black and white (or shades of grey) and left me admiring the sheer beauty of his work.
I could have easily spent another few hours looking at Horst’s work (there were some 250 photographs). Inspired by Horst I was inspired to capture different elements of fashion when I attended Canon Shoot the Show and have included in that write up a selection of the more non conventional images I took. I obviously did not have the control over the models and their poses that Horst did, or access to different lighting and backgrounds, but I still felt inspired to move away from just front on full length runway shots.
All Horst images contained in this post are freely available from Google Images (04/10/2014) and are not my own work.