A Look Back at a Vogue Legend’s Bold Photographs

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LONDON — This weekend, the V&A Museum launches its latest large-scale fashion exhibition — a retrospective of the work of the legendary Vogue photographer Horst P. Horst.

Horst’s career spanned 60 years — enough time for him to be heavily involved in both prewar Parisian haute couture and postwar New York ready-to-wear (he died in 1999). What comes across most clearly in the exhibition is how versatile and multifaceted he was as a photographer; his early black-and-white images for Paris Vogue, with models half-shrouded in atmospheric darkness, are a million miles from the eye-popping, upbeat color work he later produced for American Vogue.

What they have in common is his ability to use light to make a flat image look almost sculptural. “He was the master of light, and that’s not something you can say about every Vogue photographer,” says the show’s curator, Susanna Brown. “For example Cecil Beaton was a genius in many ways, but by his own admission, lighting wasn’t his forte. Horst was like a magician.”

Horst was part of an artistic, collaborative crowd that in turn fueled his work. He was friendly with Elsa Schiaparelli and Salvador Dalí. The Surrealist movement inspired him to put his own creative spin on the most mundane of jobs. Asked to produce something for a Vogue nail-polish story, for example, he arranged mirrors around the model’s hands for a disorientating, kaleidoscopic effect. His fashion work represented an imaginative departure from what had come before, and he could be a source of affectionate frustration for editors who just wanted him to show the clothes.

He was so prolific that even with 400 objects in the exhibition, the V&A curators say they could have produced five shows of the same scale. Every one of his 94 Vogue covers is on display — but his work wasn’t only about fashion. He also shot everything from male nudes (several of which have been lent to the V&A by Elton John and David Furnish) to interior design and gardens shoots, which he began to specialize in under the editorship of Diana Vreeland.

As well as curating the show, Brown also edited the exhibition’s accompanying book, which includes a foreword by Anna Wintour. The Cut spoke to Brown about this prolific photographer, his life in 1930s Paris, and his tender friendship with Coco Chanel.

What do you hope this show will do for Horst’s legacy?
When you think of Horst in comparison to his contemporaries — Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon — I don’t believe he’s as well-known as he should be. I hope this exhibition, and particularly the book, will help to reposition him in the history of photography.

He was clearly very well-connected and popular, and from the 1930s he was also openly gay and in relationships with men. Was that ever difficult for him? 
Well, he moved to Paris as this very handsome young German at the beginning of  the 1930s, and he immediately fell into a world where being gay was very acceptable. It was a wonderfully collaborative time. For example, we have a picture in the show of some ballet costumes — they were designed by Salvador Dalí, executed by Coco Chanel, and then photographed by Horst. That picture sums up so much about the incredibly intermingled creative world that existed in Paris. It was very special.

When I interviewed Horst’s former assistant, he summed it up so beautifully. He said, “For Horst, going to Paris was like going to heaven.” I think, particularly as a gay man, he felt comfortable there. He was embraced by society very quickly and became very close to Coco Chanel. There are wonderful, tender telegrams from Chanel during the war that just say “Darling Horst, I love you and I miss you.” In the exhibition, we also have a beautiful cigarette lighter that Chanel made for Horst — he was at her house playing with a piece of her jewelry putty, which he discarded at the end of the evening. She had it cast in silver in the form of his hand and sent it to him. It’s a very intimate object and says so much about their friendship.

Horst’s models were often partially obscured by darkness — he had a very distinctive lighting style …
Yes, and there’s a lot of correspondence between Horst and his editors and art directors at Vogue, and with Mr. Condé Nast himself, about Horst’s use of romantic and dramatic lighting. He would often spend two days setting up the lights for a single shoot — it was everything to him. He created these incredibly sculptural forms, and that was something that he spent many years perfecting. Showing the models’ faces in darkness was quite unusual at the time, and it was very problematic for the editors, because actually what they cared about was showing the garments. Edna Chase, the Vogue editor, put up a sign in the archive saying "No black photographs," because Horst’s very dark pictures of the mid-1930s drove her mad.

In the period before Diana Vreeland arrived, Horst slightly backed away from Vogue — why was that?
Jessica Daves became editor of Vogue in 1952, and she was very restrictive. She had a lot of rules about things like how far apart the models could put their feet _ “Vogue ladies don’t do that.” She wasn’t imaginative in the way that Diana Vreeland would be in the following decade. I think it was very difficult for Horst, and so he worked less with Vogue for a period and took up more advertising commissions and other projects. But when Vreeland joined Vogue at the beginning of the 1960s, that was a renaissance moment for him. He embarked on an amazing undertaking of photographing incredible houses and gardens with Valentine Lawford, his partner. And that, for him, was like a new lease of life.

"Horst: Photographer of Style" is showing at the V&A from September 6 to January 4.

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