For 60 years Horst P. Horst took photographs for the world’s most glamorous fashion publications and of the world’s most glamorous models. His photographs, for Vogue most of all, were exquisite and invariably ingenuous, as the V&A’s new retrospective of his work makes clear.
Pioneering is an overused word, but having started work at Vogue in Paris in 1931, Horst truly was that, being among the first photographers to successfully marry high art and high fashion, and working with the great and good of the industry, from Coco Chanel to Alix. Much of the display focuses on his work from the 1930s and 1940s, before the widespread use of colour photography, and his use of contrast to create a dynamic photograph – something he was allegedly once censured for by a Vogue editor – is something to marvel at.
These days, every fashion magazine spread is expected to tell a story, and in Horst’s work you can see how that trend began: his photographs were often provocative, bringing to life not merely the couture but the person displaying it. One, of society princess the Comtesse de Castéja, shows her in a meek hat with a renaissance painting in the background, elevating a simple fashion picture to something almost ethereal. Another, of the blonde American model Helen Barnett, depicts her reclining on a chaise-lounge in a delicate nightgown, calling to mind Greek tragedy and golden age Hollywood all at once. Was it meant to? Who knows, but Horst’s compositions, all sharp angles and mise-en-scène, certainly make you wonder.
Horst, who is most associated with high fashion photography, was undeniably an artist, fully embracing surrealism by the late 1930s. His work frequently concentrated less on couture and more on pushing the boundaries with objects and body parts, with fascinating results. There’s a series of the model Lisa Fonssagrives from that era, showing her in assorted tangled and dreamlike poses, which is absolutely captivating. One, a nude portrait, depicts his subject in shadows behind a harp, the contours of her figure perfectly mirrored by the smooth curves of the instrument. Apparently, many of these were considered too risqué for the then tame pages of Vogue.
‘Hand, Hands, Hands’ from 1941 – five disembodied hands set against a stark black and white background – is simple yet inspired. Equally, a whimsical series called ‘Electric Beauty’ – a sort of Frankenstein-inspired scene with a model undergoing various electrical primping methods – cleverly satirises the lengths fashion models go to be beautiful. There’s also a jovial shot of Salvador Dali himself, the photography so clear that his famous moustache seems to have a personality of its own.
Elsewhere, there is a veritable who’s who of Hollywood: in his long career Horst shot the toast of the movies, so there’s Rita Hayworth posed seductively almost in darkness, a very young looking Olivia de Havilland on set in ‘Call it A Day’, and a regal Bette Davis in yards of black taffeta. There’s Ginger Rogers, a vision in chiffon with her exposed back in a 1930s Vogue shoot, epitomising an otherworldly elegance that few have captured since.
Later, there’s a glimpse of Horst’s work outside of fashion; his 1950s series on the Qashqa’i tribe in Iran, which offers a compelling look at a closeted world. And there’s an array of curious but absorbing close-ups of nature from the 1940s.
In addition to the vast array of black and white prints, the V&A have got their hands on 94 Vogue full-colour covers shot by Horst, which is a joy for anyone interested in vintage publishing. After several galleries of black and white, it’s something of a relief to make your way to this part of the exhibition, which includes oversized prints of the photographs used for his most famous covers.
There are many gems to choose from, but in particular I was struck by a 1941 cover of a model in demure beachwear balancing a large red ball on her outstretched toes, and another bringing together Cartier jewels and Bergdorf Goodman clothing and showing a model contemplating a birdcage in the manner of a stiff 17th century portrait. Then there’s one from 1943 of three models who look like precursors for the stylish secretaries of ‘Mad Men’, all gleaming red lips, sparkling jewels and aspirational glamour, reading headlines about war in Germany.
This is not necessarily an easy exhibition; the sheer number of photos (upwards of 250), most of them darkly lit, makes it slightly daunting. You can’t possibly take in it all, and I felt a display featuring fewer shots might have allowed me to better appreciate Horst’s work. But his photography was spectacular, and beyond that, this is a wonderful fashion history, displaying the best of an era when style meant furs, silks and fabulous hats, alabaster skin and perfectly set hair. One to enjoy on a rainy autumn day, when you’re not watching the clock.
Horst: Photographer of Style, V&A until 4th January 2014, Tickets £8