Photographer of Style

Round the Clock, New York 1987 9 MB © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Round the Clock, New York
© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

On the first weekend of September I attended the opening day of the latest exhibition to be hosted by the V&A; Horst Photographer of Style, dedicated to the remarkable works of one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century.

The exhibition takes you on a visual tour through the different sections of Horst’s illustrious career, spanning six decades and boasting an impressive catalogue of works. In each of the rooms the photographs are mounted on a plain black wall which provides maximum viewing impact.

Haute Couture serves as the opening act to the display. Included here is a selection of vintage couture gowns; but it is the stunning photographs that take centre stage.

Dating from the 1930s when photography was still in its infancy, the black and white creations of Horst have a sense of vitality and artistic edge to them. The vast examples of his work, many of which are original prints from the Vogue Conde Nast archive, demonstrate perfectly the stark contrast of light and dark.

The retrospective transcends to my favourite part of the exhibition, Surrealism, a pioneering art movement that offered new ways to interpret the world and turned towards dreams and the unconscious. Displayed here are some of Horst’s famous collaborations with innovative artists and designers such as Salvador Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher 1939 6 MB © Condé Nast / Horst Estate

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher
© Condé Nast / Horst Estate

It is in this section that one of the most famous images of the twentieth century is located. The singular photograph entitled Mainbocher Corset 1939, a personal favourite of mine, is for me the highlight of the exhibition. It is as simple as it is elegant and arguably Horst’s most iconic image. It features a woman with her back to the viewer wearing a corset in a mode of undress and was the last photograph taken by Horst before the outbreak of war. The model represents Venus whilst the pink satin ribbons of the long-line corset represent the feathers of Cupid; Venus’ winged son.

I have seen this image reprinted many times on posters and was truly excited to see the original photo before my eyes. I had a preconceived idea that it would be a fairly large image, yet in actuality it was a lot smaller than I had originally imagined and was surprised to see its true size. I suppose it can be likened to those who view the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris for the first time and are taken aback by how small the painting is.

The original of this image is displayed alongside its edited counterpart that appeared in Vogue. When placed side by side the alterations are clear to see. Apart from the differences in lighting effects, the corset has been adjusted in the Vogue edit to appear tighter on the model instead of looser in the more sultry original (Horst’s preference of the two images) which looks as though it may slip off.

As the exhibition transitions through the different stages of his career such as Stage & Screen, Travel and Nudes, a sudden burst of illumination is brought to the fore in a room dedicated to Horst’s

Installation image of Horst - Photographer of Style 2 MB (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Installation image of Horst – Photographer of Style
2 MB
(c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

numerous Vogue covers.  The room is brightly lit and emphasises the large scale Technicolor photographs that adorn the white walls. Stepping out of the dark and into this hub of light and colour is a Dorothy moment in the Wizard of Oz when she steps out of her black and white Kansas house and sets foot into multi-coloured Oz.

I can’t recommend this exhibition enough, not only for the vintage prints of Hollywood’s silver screen actors and actresses, but for some of the most beautifully shot photography that surpasses its digital successor with ease.

Horst Photographer of Style is at the V&A from 5th September 2014 – 4th January 2015

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