Transcript: Yorick Blumenfeld on Erwin Blumenfeld
Erwin Blumenfeld’s son, the writer Yorick Blumenfeld, spoke to Penny Martin about his early memories of his father, Erwin Blumenfeld’s career in fashion and the relevance of his experiments in filmmaking.
Erwin Blumenfeld’s son, the writer Yorick Blumenfeld, spoke to Penny Martin about his early memories of his father, Erwin Blumenfeld’s career in fashion and the relevance of his experiments in filmmaking.
Penny Martin: I’d like to start with a couple of questions about you, Yorick. First of all, can you tell me your name and where you were born?
Yorick Blumenfeld: My name is Yorick, which is a strangely Shakespearian name, but comes from the Picts in origin. My father and mother thought that I was going to be a girl and that they were going to call me Yorikka, and fortunately I escaped that! They had also read Lawrence Stern, and there is a Yorick in there, so that is how Yorick came to be.
Penny Martin: And you were born?
Yorick Blumenfeld: In Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Penny Martin: Is that where you’ve lived most of your life?
Yorick Blumenfeld: No, when I was three and half, my parents moved to Paris. My father worked for Vogue there, and then they moved to New York in the Second World War, and since that time I have lived or worked in some ninety-five countries, so I have travelled quite a bit!
Penny Martin: Where have you lived longest?
Yorick Blumenfeld: The longest is Cambridge, England, and I’ve lived there thirty-seven years.
Penny Martin: During that time, what would you say had been your life’s work?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well basically I’m a writer, and for the last twenty-five years or so I’ve written of the future, and where we could be headed. That is mainly my life’s work, but writing all that time before as well.
Penny Martin: Which of your achievements are you most proud?
Yorick Blummenfeld: Well I think as a writer you are always most enamoured of what you are working on right at that moment, and so that is what I am most pleased about.
Penny Martin: Can you say what that is?
Yorick Blumenfeld: It is a novel situated in ancient Rome in the Augustan age, and it is a thriller. I feel that it is going to be a very exciting book. It is more towards a very large public audience, on the other hand I think the public most associates me with a book called ‘Jenny: My Diary’, which became an international bestseller. That is a very different kind of work, but that is also fiction, and most of my time has been spent writing non-fiction, but I am most excited though about that I am doing right now!
Penny Martin: I want to move on to a second set of questions that are more specific to a project that we are doing at SHOWstudio. I wanted to ask you a little bit about your own background, and principally about your father. You’ve got a famous surname in the image world, would you say that this has been a help or a hinderance?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think it is always a help to have a name that is recognised, and it hasn’t, I think, helped me at all in my own life and career, as it has been very different from my father’s. I’ve not been really in the image world in terms of my writing, except for the one book I did write about my father. Most of my writing has been in very different areas.
Penny Martin: And do you find that people recognise you?
Yorick Blumenfeld: No, they do not!
Penny Martin: Can you tell us about your first recollection of your father?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I have lots of recollections of my father, I mean, it is very difficult to know in retrospect whether your remember the actual scenes or whether you remember incidents that happened while he was photographing you, and you later see the pictures, fifty years later! He took wonderful images of me as a baby – absolutely some of his very best pictures, which alas are not going to be shown in the Netherlands.
Penny Martin: This is in the forthcoming exhibition?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, in the forthcoming exhibition that opens on 9 September . But, the things that I remember most are the more emotionally traumatic ones. He was a very exceptional person, and was quite dictatorial in his approach to different things. He was extremely impatient, and particularly when I was about three and a half or four, when we moved to France. I had always enjoyed tea before in the Netherlands, and my father, who didn’t like the Netherlands very much, hated tea, and he wanted me to drink coffee! And so there was a whole scene about that in the early restaurant days, and then he wanted to get me to enjoy French wine at a very early age, and I didn’t like drinking that unless he put sugar in it! So I would take sugar lumps and dip them in the wine and suck them. But he was extremely impatient in my ordering in restaurants for example, and even at a very young age -we are talking about age five or six- and always grew absolutely furious when I couldn’t make up my mind instantly as to what I should have from a long menu, and I was barely able to read, so that made it even more difficult!
Penny Martin: Can you describe a little more about him as a person? We have a picture of him as a father viewed from an infant’s eyes, but obviously the writing about him concentrates a lot on him as an image-maker and his relationship to the models. Can you say something about him once you had got to know him as an adult?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well we travelled quite a lot together in the United States, for example. We took a couple of trips right around the United States, together, just taking pictures, and walking and climbing and doing different things. By this time I was already at a different stage in my life, I was in my twenties. I think he was a very good storyteller -, captivating and loved telling stories. In a way this was difficult for me, as somehow or other I was always infatuated with facts, and my father was not always concerned with facts. As such, he wanted the entertainment value of a story! So as he told a story, there were always these slight nuances and differences, and I felt this was wrong; that if he had a great story to tell then it should always be the same great story, not one that had different characters and endings and I don’t know what not! So that was one part. He was, I think, a professional charmer. I think he enjoyed his power as a charmer. He liked also setting people up against each other, in terms of, for example, Elizabeth Arden versus Helena Rubenstein, and wanted to play one off against the other. He enjoyed that enormously, he got a kick out of that! He could charm really anyone he wanted to, and used that power, I think, to survive as much as anything else.
Penny Martin: I haven’t been able to glean very much information about your mother and his wife in the writings about photography. Did she play any part in supporting his photography do you think?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think she was very important in his life, but not perhaps in his photography as such. He took a number of very good pictures of her, but she never came to the studio, in New York. In the thirty years that they lived there together in New York, she almost never went to the studio that was sort of his domain. I think that they did talk a great deal though. She was an enormous reader, and so she would inform him on what was going on in the literary world...
Penny Martin: That is interesting because in his writings he is extremely well informed about current trends in psychoanalysis, and about literary criticism.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, she was a child psychologist and tried to help children with psychological problems and so forth, so they were both quite Freudian in their outlook. His home life was very different from his studio life, and it was a much more literary, intellectual, poetic existence. It is hard to recognise, but he had an enormous range of interests. As a young man, he got a camera at age 11, I believe the age was, but at the same time he was extremely interested in the theatre, and thought maybe he would become an actor. He was extremely impassioned by poetry, and started to write poetry at a very early age, and continued, through his thirties to write poetry. I have a whole collection of the poems that he wrote. He was very interested in writing, and literature as such, and so there were all these different aspects to him, as well as being very much involved in the artistic life in Berlin, as a young person. That was, extremely important to him in later years. So he really started, when he was twenty, more or less, doing Dada collages and things like this.
Penny Martin: He was a very good illustrator too, wasn’t he?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, he was very conscious of fashion, and illustration, and textiles. His interests were very wide ranging.
Penny Martin: When do you think you became first aware that he was a photographer, or of his photographic work?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think I was about four. I would go in the dark room with him in Paris. This was not a very pleasurable experience for me, because the dark room was black, except for an orange or red light that there would be in the dark room. He would have me shake the trays...
Penny Martin: Noxious chemicals!
Yorick Blumenfeld: ...Back and forth, and the chemicals would roll and make me dizzy, and I would be in the black and be totally disorientated. That would be hard, so I was very much aware of his photography from the very earliest stages. Also where we lived, in the Rue de Londres, which was a duplex, the whole place was plastered with his photographs, so one could hardly escape them!
Penny Martin: I’d like to come on to a series of questions that are more about the findings of your own research, and what you’ve written about your father’s opinion about his own work. Your book, The Naked and the Veiled, focused principally on the nudes. Did you choose that body of work because it was one that you value most highly of the archive?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, it was the work that brought him international recognition. The first photographs that he did in Verve really made his career. The Verve came out in Paris, and it was a very outstanding art magazine of the late thirties, and he had many pages in the first two issues, with Man Ray and everybody else. So, the reason why I chose the nude photographs for the theme of the book, was that they were, I thought, the most popular of his photographs, outside of the fashion world, and that they would sell the most! And indeed it has been published in the United States and France and Germany, and so, you know, it has had a certain kind of recognition. And so that was important in terms of deciding what to write on.
Penny Martin: But you’re being slightly disingenuous, aren’t you, because they really platform a lot of the intellectual concerns that we were talking about earlier, in terms of his cerebral life.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, but I could have done a book on his travel photographs, which were very good. He did wonderful photographs of Mexico, Greece, all over, and the United States. I think that pre-occupied him in his later years. He enjoyed going out and taking photographs of the natural world, and also of the architectural world, of the Gothic, and the Greek, and the Roman, and so forth. That would have been another candidate.
People had focused much too much on his fashion photography, I thought, and in America people thought of him as a commercial photographer. He thought that was the worst kind of insult to him! I mean, he thought that was really disgusting. Towards the end of his life, he was working on self portraits, that he would do in oil, very thick, and he worked on that for five or six years, not every week, but steadily. It was all in a very dark shade of red that looked like it had been done under a red lamp, and when I asked him about it, why he was showing himself in this light, he said well, he felt that when he first came to Holland, there were all these prostitutes behind red light windows. He felt that much of his time had been spent in a world of advertising, and making money, and he saw this as a form of prostitution, as far as he was concerned. So he wanted to portray himself in the light of a Dutch prostitute!
Penny Martin: Well, let’s talk about that dichotomy between personally motivated work, and images that were created to a commercial brief. Presumably, from what you’ve just said, did he then value the work that he made for commercial purposes, less than the work that was personally motivated?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Absolutely, without any doubt. I think he did certain things, for example with the Dayton Company, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, at that time, where he was able to. The art director of the Dayton Company was a close personal friend, and gave my father carte blanche. But my father did a book, called My 100 Best Pictures, and in that book, there is only one picture dealing with fashion, out of the one hundred. He chose those pictures himself - he made the selection, he chose the order. Fashion was not to be found in it, they were not the moments that he thought were his one hundred best, and that was his verdict.
Penny Martin: One that you agree with?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Absolutely.
Penny Martin: And why do you say that?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Because I think that fashion is a very important part of this world, but it’s not a world that is really concerned with beauty or ethics, principally. The beauty is of a very superficial kind, and a very surface kind. So I feel that the fashion pictures, some of which are really quite wonderful, and which I admire a lot, are not of the same rank, let’s say, as his nudes. The human form as he portrayed it, and I think he loved the female body, very greatly - is something to be treasured. I think the way he portrayed it was very different from the kind of tawdry pornography we see today.
Penny Martin: As you said, he spent a great deal of time amongst the Dadaists, and the intellectuals and artists of the mid-modernist period. The Avant-garde, and certainly early Modernism had commerce and art at completely oppositional ends of the spectrum. Do you think that his antipathy towards commerce was galvanised by his art context or do you think it was something he felt from his own experience in the industry?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think he had a difficult experience in the German clothing industry, and the period just before World War I. I think his appreciation of certain kinds of textiles, and the cut of the cloth, as it were, did influence him, but you see, in Germany in the twenties, he sent a group of his pictures to a German agency, and they rejected them, saying that they felt they were too art conscious. So he felt that their outlook on the art was almost as bad as that of the world of commerce, and that he was somewhere hanging in between, and that was very difficult. I think that certainly the art world, and by that I mean, in contemporary terms, the museum world, rejected him totally.
Penny Martin: Throughout his lifetime?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Throughout his lifetime. He never had a major museum show in his whole life, he never had a major ‘Blumenfeld’ show in any gallery, or any place in the United States ever at that time. Most people in the art world, especially in the Museum of Modern Art - where there was a concentration of the art dictators, as it were, of what was going to be shown and appreciated in the United States – he was completely rejected. And they felt, you know, 'this is a commercial photographer, we want nothing to do with him'.
Penny Martin: That is a very difficult position he occupied then, because he was embraced by the industry that he deplored, and yet not recognised by those whose values he shared.
Yorick Blummenfeld: Well, did he share their values? I mean, you know, did he share their values, of Ansel Adams? I don’t think so. And he did not share the values of their station?
Penny Martin: But less the photographers, I meant more the art world...
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, of course, the commercial world valued him greatly, they paid him enormous sums of money to do his pictures, so he said, that’s the way the cookie bounces, as it were. He was going to take his own pictures, and at the same time take the ones for commerce.
Penny Martin: Can we move on to a section of questions I wanted to ask you about the films, well, not about the film-making in general. This is maybe the least known aspect of your father’s image output.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Indeed.
Penny Martin: Do you know what prompted him to start making films?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think my father had always been enamoured of films, he admired Charlie Chaplin enormously. Charlie Chaplin was one of his great heroes, and in many of his Dada collages you can see that. And he loved the old movies, he was passionate about those. So filmmaking was never very far from his interests. In 1933, he worked as a cameraman and things for Jacques Feyder, who was a French filmmaker of horror movies of the thirties, so he had that kind of experience and background. I think in his later years he felt that the advertising that he saw on television -and it was I think principally television which spurred him on in the fifties- he felt, ‘these people have no imagination, they have no way of really showing the terrific potential that motion has in fashion photography and other areas’, and he wanted to show that. Now, at the same time, there was a financial consideration, because he was a good friend of the Dalles, the owners of L’Oreal, and so he talked to them, Madame Dalle, and Paris, and Francois, and he got more or less an agreement that they were going to try to do something with his films if he could show some products, so that is what he started to do. Nothing ever came of it, but he enjoyed making these very brief films, showing the possibility of beauty products being dramatised and glamorised cinematically.
Penny Martin: Do you know what period that would have been during?
Yorick Blumenfeld: This is really the period 1958 to 1964.
Penny Martin: And do you have any idea of the equipment he was using?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, he was using very primitive equipment, I mean, now, any small camera has a thousand times the power of what he was able to do. I know that he did it on a Kodak 16mm film, which he cut and spliced and glued together himself, and so it was very laborious work, which he did on his own, and which he enjoyed in a way.
Penny Martin: And in total, the work which you are sharing with us, and we have been working on the edit, exists as about twenty-five minutes in total. What state has it lain in since the 60s? Has it been in cans?
Yorick Blumenfeld: No, it was never in cans, I still had some loose rolls of this 16mm film in my study, where it’s gathering dust I’m afraid, in no state of preservation. I think my brother Henry, who had a lot of the films, with his wife Kathleen, I think they tried to take better care of it, but they didn’t do anything with it. Arte made a short film on him for French television, and also a German company made a film in Austria for Austrian TV on my father, but besides that none of this has ever been used or shown, you’re the first ones!
Penny Martin: We’re honoured, to say the very least! Do you know if during his lifetime he showed them to anyone?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, he showed them to us, and he tried to get Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein also interested, but they were not yet sufficiently interested in television commercials to appreciate them.
Penny Martin: But they saw them?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think they were probably shown to them, yes.
Penny Martin: My feeling was, having looked at the material many times, is that there is a considerable split between the work. Half with the commercial impetus, and then work with the optical illusions and coloured light. The latter doesn’t seem so humorous in tone, there is a slightly more sort of serious, experimental feeling, that it is more consistent with the kind of visual, aesthetic pleasure of his stills work. I just wondered if you think that he maybe saw this work with the optical illusions, and with the disembodied, well, the fractured body, and the kind of abstraction, maybe differently from the commercial film? I don’t know whether you agree there’s a sort of personal work tone to that?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, I see it, the first selection there, comes very much out of his black and white and colour experiments that he did. He was enamoured of kaleidoscopes, he loved fluted glass, he adored mirrors. He liked using light and shadow between screens, in more than the platonic sense. I think that he wanted to also show that there was not only the still aspect of the image, but that it could also move, and be animated and alive, and I think that was a personal challenge. The other things were trying to sell things to particular audiences.
Penny Martin: Yes, and I feel that that was more the objective of the advertising material. But the optical illusions smack more of a kind of personal, aesthetic journey a bit.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, which it does.
Penny Martin: And the optical illusions are consistent with earlier work as well, aren’t they? Those stills were in the forties, with the fluted glass and the coloured light…
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, the thirties and forties.
Penny Martin: So the optical work feels as though it was an ongoing obsession that he wanted to retrace, now that he had different mechanisms to do so, rather than already seeing a television advertising genre, and wanting to make similar material. I wonder then whether maybe this body of work sits differently in terms of what we already discussed, in terms of advertising work being slightly blemished or besmirched by commercial constraint. I wonder whether this was more like ‘art film’ for him.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well it was not art film, it was art, and the process of creation itself, of using colour, and light, and distortions. I think there is in the commercial ones a part of the Dada movement enters in the unreality of people talking to themselves in the mirror, and having split images. It is a very complex perspective on the self, and the other world as it were.
Penny Martin: And humour tends to come in more in the advertising work, I think, rather than the private, personal work, if we separate that into another section...
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, the great sense of humour, fortunately, came through in a few of the films. I mean, humour was extremely important to him.
Penny Martin: Another disparity that occurred to me, which I read about in relation to your father’s nudes, was that in seeking to find a kind of a general femininity in his nudes and his stills work, he would often try not to introduce the specific identity of the sitter. Often the face or the head would be missing, and it would be more about a general state of womanhood, rather than a specific woman. But of course in the advertising work, the identity of the sitters is quite apparent. Do you think just a kind of commercial practicality, that when doing work, that he would know the face would need to be included?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, he had this passion for faces, and certainly his early photography in the Netherlands, focused on the face almost entirely exclusively, and so there was this division between the head and the body. He didn’t do very many nudes at first at all, very rarely, and later, in terms of the commercial, the body became very important, the head less so, particularly, the male head was almost totally excluded, the female focused really on lipstick, lips, and eye make up. That was the two main areas that he focused on. There was this very entertaining suit, which Maybelline, at the time, was involved in. He sued them for stealing one of his eyes - the eye with the eyelashes and make-up - and they claimed in court that the eyes were public property. He said, 'yes in principal you are correct, but you took my image, and my image has seventy-four eye lashes on the one eye, and in exactly the same order as you have them, and this is an eye I made'. So they said, 'oh my god, he counted the eyelashes of the eye!' and he won a considerable settlement from them. He was very much focused on getting the eye right.
Penny Martin: Well, we’ve ascertained that you can recognise some of the women in the film, but do you personally recognise them? Do you know who any of those sitters are?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I don’t think that he used Evelyn Tripp, whom I recognise in some of the pictures.
Penny Martin: Did you mention that one of the women making up you knew?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, I knew a few of them. I worked one summer in the studio, so I met some of the models of that time, and he used different models. Many of them were not the most commercial models that he used for these particular images. In other words, some of the models charged extremely high rates...
Penny Martin: They weren’t as patient as what he needed!
Yorick Blumenfeld: And that was not what he was after, a glamorous face in there, as opposed to his fashion photography, where it was de rigeur.
Penny Martin: It is fairly well documented that your father didn’t like what he called ‘arse directors’, and you say that he enjoyed a very happy relationship with Dayton’s, because he was able to have full control over, and not be dictated to, and controlled in terms of his images.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes
Penny Martin: But looking at the kind of playful fun that he had in this third body of film work, mainly for Dayton’s, with the logo types and spinning logos, and tear sheets and backward camera tricks, do you think there was something of the frustrated graphic designer about him?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well he was very concerned about type, and certainly also about the layout of the page, and where the gutter would go. He was extremely influential in all of that. I think also in his covers he was extremely aware of the composition, that was essential. I think he had in mind the result that he wanted to achieve before he ever got to the back of the camera.
Penny Martin: The mark of a good photographer! They know where the gutter is going to fall.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes
Penny Martin: So it’s probably an experience from having too many of his shoots ruined in his eyes?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Well, he didn’t have all that many shots ruined, but he had a lot of interference. There would be a lot of young directors who would come in, and want to show what they knew, and wanted to impose their views, and it was really a test of will, and he didn’t like that whole scene at all.
Penny Martin: He enjoyed a very good relationship with Alexey Brodovitch though didn’t he, and, with Alexander Lieberman?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, I think his relationship with Lieberman was better than with Brodovitch. I think they both saw the image in the same way. I think Lieberman respected him, and my father respected him also, not only as an art director, but also as a photographer. Some of Lieberman’s work, particularly the book he did following his trip to Greece and so forth, in particular, showed a great appreciation of photography. I think that they saw, for many years eye to eye, and then money came in, and that sort of sent them in different directions.
Penny Martin: I’m not sure if you know Lieberman’s 1951 book on colour photography?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, I do, of course.
Penny Martin: But your father gets the finale in that, and that is quite a special book, it’s quite rare now, isn’t it? The art director Peter Saville showed me it.
Yorick Blummenfeld: Yes.
Penny Martin: But it’s very lovingly produced, it’s sort of almost like a love letter to your father, in some ways, the way that he gets the build up.
Yorick Blumenfeld: At that time, he was the leading cover photographer for Vogue, and the leading colour photographer. So I think that was a recognition which the world of ‘art’ did not reciprocate. Many of the photographs in that particular book had nothing to do with fashion at all. They were views of New York, there was a view of the Third Avenue El there were all these images...
Penny Martin: That was the travel images wasn’t it?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, and of course Lieberman recognised the value of those images.
Penny Martin: I just have a final couple of questions, which are maybe more general. As you’ve said, the film work has received maybe the least attention, and it is the part of your career that perhaps people know least about.
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes.
Penny Martin: How do you think they relate to the rest of the archive? I guess with more emphasis on motion image and video in art, maybe they occupy a different kind of relationship now than they did before?
Yorick Blumenfeld: I think that one can only see it in perspective of the multiple personalities that my father had. He had this whole frustrated, dramatic side to him, the poetic side, and the Dada side. Parts of the motion picture experience fits into these different pigeonholes, as it were. One has to see him as a whole, rather than as a divided person, and this is very much part of the whole.
Penny Martin: Finally, in his monograph on your father, Bill Ewing, speculates that this is an area of your father’s career that he might have pursued. Do you have an opinion on that?
Yorick Blumenfeld: Yes, I think he would have pursued it more. Part of the time in his autobiography, Eye to I, occupies the last eight years of his life almost exclusively. He spent a lot of time writing and re-writing this, and so he had little time, really, to follow the motion picture part of his interest in images and imagery. I personally think that he felt he had more to contribute in motion. He had sort of gone as far as he could, in many ways, in still photography. The appeal of motion was that it was different, it was new, and it was challenging to him.