Remy Blumenfeld grew up with many of his grandfather’s iconic images on the walls of his parents’ house in Grantchester, England. Audrey Hepburn in mirrors, Marlene Dietrich draped in fox fur, Grace Kelly in a gold picture frame. Now he has made a haunting film about the Man Who Shot Beautiful Women.
In 1941, his grandfather Erwin Blumenfeld, a German Jew, escaping from the Nazis, arrived with his family in New York with one suitcase. A chance visit to his studio from a stranger changed the course of his life. It was the photographer Cecil Beaton. He helped Blumenfeld secure a contract with Vogue and the two become lifelong friends.
At the peak of his career, Blumenfeld took hundreds of covers for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue and was the most highly paid photographer in the world. Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, he shot and hand-printed thousands of covers and advertisements. Bette Davis posed for him, and so did Lucille Ball.
By the time Marlene Dietrich met Blumenfeld, her stardom was tarnished by German associations. Her agent hoped that having Blumenfeld take her portrait might help her career - it didn’t work. An early image of a 23-year-old Audrey Hepburn was shot in 1952 before she was cast in Funny Girl. Grace Kelly came into Blumenfeld’s studio the year she filmed To Catch A Thief.
He photographed Bani Yelverton, the first black model to participate in an American fashion show, who he was instructed to place on the far right of the foldout, so she could be easily torn out of the magazine by readers who reacted badly to this audacity.
Today, outside of the photography world, Blumenfeld’s name is little known. He saw himself as an artist at a time when photography was not yet considered as an art form. It is largely thanks to the timeless beauty of his work and the fact that so many prints survive, that Blumenfeld is being re-assessed by a new generation of curators. Writing in the Financial Times, Francis Hodgson said recently that Blumenfeld, was ‘‘a more brilliant experimenter in photography than Man Ray and outdid Irving Penn as a pioneer in fashion’’.
Remy was a small child when his grandfather died mysteriously in Rome in 1969. He had been the most loving and generous granddad, says Remy, “He took me to his first movie, The Jungle Book, and bought me toy dogs when my parents wouldn’t let me have a real one. I remember my father leaving a party to fly to Italy for the burial”. His 72-year-old grandfather had been in Rome with his young female assistant, but where was his grandmother? Why was there no funeral and no memorial service? Growing up, these subjects seemed off limits. As an adult, with his own father about to turn 80, it was time to ask the questions I had not dared ask.
As Remy began interviewing friends and family members, a picture started to emerge of a man, obsessed by the pursuit of beauty, but terrified of aging and haunted by the ugliness he perceived in his own face. He was fascinated by beautiful women, but never afraid to celebrate his own sexual ambiguity. Ultimately I would discover that his death in Rome was a suicide. On the floor of his studio, he left 30,000 transparencies, 8,000 black-and-white prints, more than 100 collages, dozens of groundbreaking fashion films and an autobiography detailing how he would die.
After the burial, it was revealed that Blumenfeld had left the management of his photographic estate to his mistress. She divided the work into four lots, gave one to each of his three children and kept many prints for herself. Much of his work has never been seen by the public.
It has been left to his grandchildren to put the past behind and his cousin, Nadia, a scientist, has devoted years of her life to making thousands of Blumenfeld prints available to the public. Museums are at last opening their doors with big shows at the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo.
The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women is the first full-length film about Erwin Blumenfeld, which seems extraordinary. Remy has been producing television for 20 years and had always assumed someone else would make a film about his grandfather before he had the chance, but no one did. “It seemed,” says Remy. “both like an opportunity and an obligation. As new generations are learning about his work, Blumenfeld is starting to be remembered as the complex artist he always was.” The film is an extraordinarily beautiful, moving and at times haunting epitaph to one of the 20th Century’s most influential, yet still vastly under appreciated, photographers.
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