Horst P. Horst. Retrospective.

Horst was born in Weißenfels-an-der-Saale, East Germany, on 14 August 1906 the son of a prosperous shop owner. Not wanting to be confused with the Nazi official, Martin Bormann, in 1943 he later legally changed his name to Horst P Horst. Horst developed a love for avant-garde art and design at an early age, and left the Kunstgewerbeschule in Hamburg to become an apprentice of the architect, Le Corbusier, in Paris.

There, Horst met the photographer, George Hoyningen-Huene, who sparked his own interest in the subject. Through Hoyningen-Huene, Horst was introduced to many artists, including the photographer, Cecil Beaton; the interior designer, Jean-Michael Frank; a The New Yorker writer, Janet Flanner; and the designer, Coco Chanel. By the mid 1930s, Horst had superseded his mentor Hoyningen-Huene as French Vogue‘s primary photographer. His images frequently appeared in the French, British and American editions of the magazine.

Portrait of Coco Chanel, 1937

In the 1930s Horst experimented with Surrealism, and his photographs of the period are mysterious and whimsical. In this period he also photographed the Surreal dress designs of his friend Elsa Schiaparelli and began his working relationship with celebrated Surrealist Salvador Dalí. Horst would go on to work closely with Dalí, creating hybrid works for The Dream of Venus and documenting Dalí’s costume designs in his own recognisable photographic style.

Portrait of Salvador Dalì, 1943

The Surrealist movement was at its height in Paris at the time with Dalí at the centre of their creative circle. He is photographed here with his expressive eyes closed, caught in an introspective moment. Captured in this self-reflection the portrait references the importance of dreams and the unconsciousness as a theme of the Surrealist movement. This print of his friend and collaborator has an intimacy and softness to it which differs from the more elaborate and formal fashion photographs for which Horst established his reputation.

During the 1930s Surrealism expanded outside of its radical avant-garde roots and transformed design, fashion, advertising and film. Surrealism’s expansion also seeped into the photographs of Horst. Combining whimsical and surreal elements with his classical aesthetic Horst created tromp l’oeil still lifes and portraits, collaborating with Dalí and the designer Elsa Schiaparelli.

Trompe L’Oeil, 1937
Still Life / Houden, Hoop, 1937

Horst was a perfectionist who raised the standards of fashion photography, and indeed helped to define it. His study of Greek sculpture and Classical painting often informed his compositions, and he was a meticulous photographic technician. Horst’s experimentations with radical and Surrealist compositions, as well as avant-garde techniques such as double exposures, produced some of the most iconic fashion images ever.

Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher, 1939

Horst’s most iconic photograph is Mainbocher Corset, taken in 1939. Mainbocher Corset has gone on to inspire numerous photographers and fashion designers. It was taken at Vogue Studios, Paris, in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. Indeed, Horst left the next morning for Le Havre to escape the impending conflict. Horst emigrated to the United States, where he started work for American Vogue, for which he would work for the rest of his life.

A meticulous photographic technician, Horst preferred the use of the platinum printing process. This technique, which was first used towards the end of the nineteenth century, was a popular early method of photographic reproduction. The process is similar to a silver gelatin print where a light sensitive solution, including platinum, is brushed onto the photographic paper. The paper is then dried and exposed, in contact with the negative, to light. The exposed paper is then developed so that the metal salts are reduced back to a metallic state to form an image, before it is put through a series of clearing baths. This results in a final print that consists of metal particles embedded in the fibres of the paper. As it does not react to other metals, platinum is a very stable element. This makes it the most archival method of printing photographs.

The resulting prints present the photographic image in a broad range of tones, with a luminous matte surface. These qualities perfectly suited Horst’s style of photography. Influenced by the sculptures of Ancient Greece and Classical painting, Horst arranged his models in striking poses against stark studio backdrops and strong lighting. The rich and varied tones of platinum printing enhance the sculptural quality of his fashion photographs and in his portraiture, allows for a detailed depiction of the sitter with the subtle use of contrast.

The platinum emulsions that are used in the printing process were hand coated onto the photographic paper and as such each print is slightly different, making Horst’s prints unique collectable objects.

Portrait of Lillian Marcuson, 1950

The studies exemplify Horst’s sense of form. All emphasis is on the idealised human body, expressive light and shadow. Monumental and anonymous nudes resemble classical sculptures. As Mehemed Agha (1929-78), art director of American Vogue, commented:

‘Horst takes the inert clay of human flesh and models it into the decorative shapes of his own devising. Every gesture of his models is planned, every line controlled and coordinated to the whole of the picture. Some gestures look natural and careless, because carefully rehearsed; the others, like Voltaire’s god, were invented by the artist because they did not exist’.

Lisa Hand on Torso II, 1940
Male Nude I, 1952
American Nude, 1982

The 1930s ushered in huge technical advancements in colour photography. Horst adapted quickly to a new visual vocabulary, creating some of Vogue’s most dazzling colour images. In 1935 he photographed the Russian Princess Nadejda Sherbatow in a red velveteen jacket for the first of his many Vogue cover pictures.

The occupation of Paris transformed the world of fashion. The majority of French ateliers closed and many couturiers and buyers left the country. Remaining businesses struggled with extreme shortages of cloth and other supplies. The scarcity of French fashions in America, however, enabled American designers to come into their own.

Horst’s colour photographs are rarely exhibited because few vintage prints exist. Colour capture took place on a transparency which could be reproduced on the magazine page without the need to create a photographic print. The size of the new prints displayed in this room of the exhibition echoes the large scale of a group of Horst images printed in 1938 at the Condé Nast press.

Suit and Headdress by Schiaparelli (Mounted on Archival Board), 1947
Portrait of Loretta Young, 1941

In the 1980s, Horst P. Horst’s early style was enjoying a renaissance. In 1978, French Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Francine Crescent, invited the artist to photograph the Paris collections in a style that echoed his atmospheric work of the 1930s. Horst’s reputation was thus secured for posterity through a series of new publications, exhibitions and television documentaries.

In 1988, the hosiery brand Round the Clock commissioned a controversial advertising campaign that saw women revealing slender legs clad in the latest hosiery – printed opposite the headline ‘panty hose for men’. An accompanying television commercial featured a man returning home from work to find the print advertisement in a mailed magazine, before removing his shoes and suspenders and reclining on the bed with the lights down. Viewers of both advertisements were riled enough to protest the ostensibly sexist campaign, masterminded by ad agency Romann & Tannenholz, but the polemic had already succeeded.

Round the Clock’s previously stagnant sales rose rapidly and brand awareness grew from 30 to 60 percent. Whilst Romann & Tannenholz’s research had revealed that how women looked to the opposite sex determined 85% of women’s hosiery purchases. Despite this, however, the sector continued to skirt the issue of sex, favouring the promotion of colour, style and fit. Gad Romann, chairman of Romann & Tannenholz, made no apologies for the bold campaign and is quoted as espousing the view that ‘there’s a difference between pornography and art; using Horst makes it art.’

Round the Clock, 1987 is endowed with fastidious precision and the enigmatic ambiance of a characteristic Horst image. The chiaroscuro befalling the legs from ankle to suspender compounds a sense of drama instantly recognisable to those familiar with the artist’s fashion archive – compiled across six decades. The photograph also references Surrealism in its composition, as the woman’s figure is severed by the image’s top border.

Round the Clock, 1987

When fashion photography changed its tone during the 1960s, his work fell out of popular favour. However, his strong style and sense of drama led him to continue to find work, shooting advertisements for different fashion houses. Pop icon, Madonna, propelled Horst to superstardom when she based her music video for Vogue on Horst’s most iconic fashion photograph, Mainbocher Corset.

Horst died at the age of 93, on 18 November 1999, at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.

Horst P. Horst

“Fashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again”

– Horst P. Horst

The following sources have been used for this publication:




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