Horst: a magician with light

‘Electric Beauty’ are four black and white photographs taken by Horst P Horst in 1939. They are a satirical comment on the futility of extreme modern beauty treatment, fashionable in the 1930s, at a time when the world was on the brink of war.

We see the model undergo various bizarre procedures, yet she seems blissfully unaware – in one she is even wearing a creepy mask – of the danger of electrocution. The sinister atmosphere is further enhanced by an enlarged projection in the background of Hieronymus Bosch’s surreal Temptation of St Anthony.

These photographs reflect Horst’s intelligent and complex relationship with photography. They also reveal how he used light and shadow to sculpt his photographs. Horst: Photographer of Style at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is a scholarly study of the career of the photographer who worked not just in fashion but in art, design and theatre. Exhibition curator Susanna Brown calls him a magician with light.

Horst studied furniture design in Hamburg and worked for the architect Le Corbusier in Paris – his precise compositions and graphic aesthetic were perhaps a result of his design background. He joined Vogue in 1931, shooting over 90 covers and collaborating with the likes of Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli. He also had close connections with the Surrealists, and it is in this room where some of his more intriguing, and at times witty, portraits hang.

We particularly enjoyed the portrait of Dali entitled ‘Dali Dreaming of Mediation’ from 1943. The manipulation of light gives it an almost ethereal quality, something that Dali would no doubt have enjoyed.

Horst introduced some of these surrealist elements into his fashion photography so that not one feels like a standard classic fashion shoot. In his campaign for Cartier, for instance, classic diamond rings are juxtaposed in the model’s hair.

Or for the American Vogue cover in 1941, he has the athletic model in a bathing suit balancing a beach ball on her feet – the play of light here is really magical. It also shows how effortlessly he transitioned to colour photography in the 1940s.

Then there are his memorable photographs such as the 1939 portrait of a model shot from behind, her body hugged by a Mainbocher corset. The exhibition reveals his initial sketches prior to the shoot that reveal how meticulously he staged each and every shot. We also see the two portraits side-by-side; one of the original by Horst that saw the laced up garment slightly loose on the models figure, the other the touched up version for Vogue with the corset perfectly glued on. Horst said he preferred the flawed version. So do we.

Nicky Haslam, who worked with him at Vogue in the 1960s, said Horst saw ‘the innate glamour in people… the glamour of personalities rather than the glamour of name’. He didn’t care so much about fashion, the labels, but concerned himself with the image. This could explain how he was able to create some of the most memorable fashion photographs of the twentieth-century. And Horst: Photographer of Style truly captures the spirit of this inspiring artist.

Horst: Photographer of Style is at the V&A from 6 September 2014 until 4 January 2015.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

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