Monday, 28 March 2011

Horst P. Horst: The Architecture of 20th Century Glamour

Horst P. Horst
Image courtesy of Herry Lawford:

I like taking photographs, because I like life. And I like photographing people best of all, because most of all I love humanity.

Whether it be portraiture, fashion, commercial, abstract or still-life, great photography is a compelling art form: it demands of a photographer a gifted eye which sees something more than what is generally apparent (and taken for granted on a daily basis) - it requires an extraordinary eye capable of discerning detail in the mundane and to present it back to its audience, granting the viewer the opportunity of seeing and then realising that which was dismissed or overlooked. In addition to  a sensitive eye, great photography requires one other fundamental element of the photographer: the possession of  that innate artistic sensibility which enables him or her to utilize, (re-)arrange, capture and then translate that which is common or disregarded and to elevate it to the level of art.

That said, great photographers are few and far in between. With the click of a button, anyone can take a photograph; few, however, can create art which stirs the emotions, conveys a mood or transcends time. And in the medium of photography, few names equal that of one of its greatest artists: Horst P. Horst. Master of composition and line, the scintillating elements of glamour, style, and elegance have all become synonymous with his name.

Christian 'Bébé' Bérard's portrait of Horst ~ 1933-1934
Image courtesy of:

Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann (he seldom bothered to use his surname and was always known simply as 'Horst') was born on August 14th, 1906, in Weissenfels-an-der-Saale, Germany. The second son of a successful and prosperous Protestant middle-class  hardware merchant, Max, and his wife, Klara, Horst was drawn towards actors and artists from an early age. The teen-aged Horst first became interested in avante-garde art when he met the dancer Eva Weidemann at his aunt's house.

In the late 1920s, the young Horst moved to Paris to continue his education - initially begun near his home at the Hamburg's Kunstgewerbeschule Design School where he studied architecture - and began apprenticing with the renowned Bauhaus architect, Le Corbusier. While in Paris, Horst met many of the city's resident artists and attended galleries. But the great turning-point from an interest in architecture to photography came in 1930 when  Horst met and befriended the man who would  become his mentor - and another great photographer - George Hoyningen-Huene. At that time, Hoyningen-Huene was working as a contributing photographer at Paris Vogue since the mid-1920s and headed its photo studio from 1926-1929. Horst worked for Hoyningen-Huene as an assistant and occasional model until 1935 when Horst took over Hoyningen-Huene's former post at Vogue. (The relationship between the youthful Germanic and muscular blond Horst and Hoyningen-Huene - a half-Baltic, half-American nobleman whose father had been chief equerry to Czar Nicholas II - deepened and the two became lovers.)

And it was through his friendship and connection with Hoyningen-Huene that, in November 1931, Horst's first credited photograph appeared as a full-page advertisement in the pages of French Vogue. But Horst's real breakthrough came a few months later, in March of 1932, when he created, along with three fashion studies, a full-page portrait of the daughter of Sir James Dunn, the art patron and  supporter of Surrealism, featured in British Vogue. Also through Hoyningen-Huene's connections, the fledgling photographer met the fashionable British society photographer Cecil Beaton, who in turn introduced  Horst to the  great Chicago-born couturier Charles James. 
(Sources:, undated;, undated;, 2010;, 2011)

The youthful Horst photographed by George Hoyningen-Huene in 1931
Image courtesy of:

That same year, 1932, Horst staged his first exhibition at La Plume d'Or in Paris, an exhibition which, fortuitously for Hoyningen-Huene's young protegé, was reviewed by the very influential Janet Flanner, The New Yorker magazine's Paris-based correspondent and journalist who wrote under the pen-name of 'Genêt'. (Flanner's Letter from Paris played an instrumental role in introducing the readers of The New Yorker to the art scene and the works of new, avant-garde artists and creators working in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s.) And it was Flanner's review at the end of that first exhibition which exposed Horst  and placed him squarely in the limelight - and brought him instant recognition. It was also in 1932 that Horst took the very first of the countless celebrity portraits he would come to create in the span of his sixty-year long career: that of Hollywood legend Bette Davis.Within two short years, Horst's celebrity roster came to include the likes of the English playwright and wit Noël Coward, French singer and actress Yvonne Printemps, the Italian couturière (and Gabrielle Chanel's arch-rival) Elsa Schiaparelli, the model Lisa Fonssagrives, the American lyricist Cole Porter and Princess Natasha Pavlovna Paley, daughter of Grand Duke Paul Alexandrovich and cousin of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. (Source:, 2010)

Horst preferred to work in the confines of the highly stylised  settings of  his studio where he had full control of the (artificial) lighting. Years later, in a 1984 biography by his long-term companion, Valentine Lawford (a former British service officer), Horst recalled one particular, telling photographic session in 1935 for French Vogue with the Comtesse de la Falaise for his subject: "To get this shot, it took two days. It was the idea that counted then, not the sort of nervous rush they work in today."  

In that first decade in Paris, Horst moved in a rarefied artistic circle which included the interior designer and furniture-maker Jean-Michel Frank, the illustrationist and set-designer Christian 'Bébé' Bérard, and Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, whom Horst called "the queen of the whole thing." (In fact, the cornerstone of Chanel's empire - the braid-trimmed, pocketed and brass-buttoned cardigan - was based on a Tyrolean jacket that Horst brought back from one of his trips to Austria.)
(Sources & quotes: Horyn, C.,, November 19, 1999; Collins, A. F., "Toujours Couture", Vanity Fair, September 2009)

Linda ~ 1939
Image courtesy of:

Although he rarely used his surname, Bohrmann, even as a fledgling photographer, Horst formally dropped it in 1943, after acquiring his American citizenship (on October 21st of that same year), so as not to be confused with the Nazi official Martin Bormann. It was then that he legally changed his name to 'Horst P. Horst'. (Horst had emigrated to America in the late summer of 1939 shortly after taking what would become one of the most  iconic images of the twentieth century, shot at his Paris studio: the erotically-charged Mainbocher Corset. With the impending Second World War looming menacingly and inevitably on the European horizon, that image, which showed a model seen from behind wearing - or rather, in the process of divesting herself from - an unfastened, loosened corset, neatly summed up for Horst his feelings about the end of an era, "While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.")
(Source & quote: Horyn, C.,, November 19, 1999)  

Mainbocher Corset ~ 1939

After his arrival in the United States (to where he had frequently traveled back and forth between Europe and New York over the years), war was declared between Germany and the United States on December 7th, 1941. Horst applied and passed an Army physical exam in 1942 but he was not officially enrolled into the Army until July 2nd, 1943.  In that capacity, Horst became an Army photographer, printing his work in Belvoir Castle, an Army magazine. Much as it had in Europe, Horst's career flourished in America. In addition to his roster of fashionable celebrities and fashion editorial layouts in Vogue magazine, Horst photographed President Harry S. Truman in 1945 with whom he developed a close, personal friendship. Consequently and  at the invitation of the White House, Horst  had the singular honour of  photographing every First Lady in the post-war years. After 1945, Horst continued working for American Vogue.
(Sources:, 2010;, 2011)

Helen Bennett ~ Paris, 1936

The above three images are courtesy of:

Horst's photographs are completely contrived and controlled: his method of working entailed careful preparation for a shoot, paying particular attention to lighting - he was a master of light and shadow effects - and even though he favoured the usage of props, he kept them to a minimum; his instructions to models were invariably brief and succinct.

After the war, in the 1950s, Horst travelled widely in Europe, photographing portraits of such notable figures as James Bond creator, Ian Fleming in Kitzbeuhel, and the German conductor Herbert von Karajan in his sports car at his Austrian retreat. It was also to Austira, in 1952, that Horst made an important trip to work on a major advertising campaign  featuring the model Suzy Parker, who became a major star in the 1960s before attempting a new career in film. In America that same year, he took his first interior photographs - the sitter was Consuelo Vanderbilt, former Duchess of Marlborough who became Madame Jacques Balsan after her divorce from Charles Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough.  At the behest of Diana Vreeland - then still at Harper's Bazaar but soon to be  newly-appointed  as editor-in-chief of Vogue from January 1963 until the spring of 1971, when she was fired from her post in the 1960s to capture the lifestyle of  international high-society, he began taking interior photographs (alongside articles by Horst's companion, Valentine Lawford).

In those interior photographs, Horst would focus on the charming details in which were found clues to the home-owner's personality: ''The cravats around the carafes of wine at the Rothschilds' house in Mouton,'' remembered Mrs. Vreeland in 1984. ''The Duke of Windsor's red leather dispatch box marked 'The King.' When those pictures came in, I went berserk. I'd be intoxicated for hours.'' This series was to continue into the 1980s in both Vogue and House and Garden and eventually to be compiled into a book, Horst: Interiors, by Barbara Plumb (1983). (Quote: Horyn, C.,, November 19, 1999)
(Sources:, 2011;, undated;, 2010)

Ginger Rogers ~ 1936

Although work in the 1970s declined and became sparse, by the 1980s, however, Horst's work was rediscovered by a new generation of style-enthusiasts and a new interest was rekindled when he was commissioned to take nine photographs for the February 1980 issue of Life magazine; that issue of Life was the most popular of that year, selling 1.5 million copies. The success of the nine Life portraits led to a book contract with editor James Watters. The Horst-Watters collaboration blossomed into another best-selling book,  Return Engagement: Faces to Remember - Then and Now (1984). (Source:, undated)

Cartier's "Diamants Mystérieux" ~ 1934

Cartier's "Diamants Mystérieux" ~ 1934
The above two images are courtesy of Gatochy:

Lisa Fonssagrive's Hands ~ New York, 1941
Image courtesy of:

Horst died on November 18th, 1999, at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, aged 93. In the year previous to his death, Horst had been in declining health since his bout with pneumonia. His photographic career spanned sixty years and encompassed several books and exhibitions. In the process of which, Horst's glossy (if slightly surrealistic) images have come to define the twentieth century. As the photographer Eric Boman, who met Horst in 1978, has aptly said of him, "He really was the 20th century." (Quote: Horyn, C.,, November 19, 1999)

I prefer to regard elegance as a form of physical and mental gracethat has nothing to do with pretension...”

Elsa Schiaparelli ~ 1934

Ballets Russes

Lisa With Harp ~ Paris, 1939


Elsie, Lady Mendl ~ 1936
The two photographs above are courtesy of Dovima Is Divine II

The Duchess of Windsor ~ ca. 1947

'Coco' Chanel ~ 1937
The above two photographs are courtesy of Herry Lawford 
The above four images are courtesy of:

Baron Nicolas 'Niki' de Gunzburg
Image courtesy of:

Odalisque I ~ 1943

Odalisque III ~ 1943

Helen Bennett - Hair/Lace ~ 1935 

Noël Coward ~ 1963
The above four images are courtesy of:

London, 1936

Lisa Fonssangrives ~ New York, 1939
Image courtesy of:

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel ~ Paris, 1937

Lanvin ~ Paris, 1937

Eva With Rose

Portrait (double exposure) ~ 1942
The above two images are courtesy of:

Mainbocher (American couturier Main Rousseau Bocher) for Vogue ~ 1941
Image courtesy of:

Richard Tyler ~ New York, 1946
Image courtesy of:

The Bust of Queen Nefertiti ~ Paris, 1939

Hands, Hands, Hands ~ 1941
Image courtesy of:  

Marlene Dietrich ~ 1942

Marlene Dietrich & Maria Riva (her daughter) ~ Vogue, 1947
Image courtesy of:

Pauline de Rothschild ~ 1950

Suzy Parker ~ Vogue, 1954
Image courtesy of:

Natasha Paley (Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley) ~ 1935

Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel

Elsie de Wolfe (Lady Mendl)

Lisa With Turban ~ New York, 1940

Helen Bennett

Edith Sitwell ~ 1948

Classical Still Life ~ 1937

Maria Callas ~ ca. 1952

The above twenty-seven images are all courtesy of:

Video courtesy of: xstuporman  ~ YouTube

I don’t think photography has anything remotely to do with the brain. It has to do with eye appeal.

Recommended reading:

The History of Fashion Photography (1979), by Nancy Hall-Duncan: Alpine Book Company 

Horst: His Work And His World (1984), by Valentine Lawford: Knopf

Horst: Sixty Years of Photography (1991), by Horst, Martin Kazmaier & Lothar Schirmer: Universe Publishing

Icons of Photography: The 20th Century (1999), by Peter Stepan: Prestel

Horst Portraits: 60 Years of Style (2001), by Horst, Terence Pepper, Robin Muir, National Portrait Gallery (London) & Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: Harry N. Abrams

Photography: A Cultural History (2006), by Mary W. Marien: Laurence King Publishing

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