Kicking off another new series on Highsnobiety for 2016, we present the first edition of Know Your Photographers — a monthly in-depth look at the lives and careers of some of the most important photographers to have worked in fashion. Our first installment remembers one of the early legends of the industry: Horst P. Horst.
A titan of contemporary fashion photography and portraiture, Horst P. Horst has an eclectic and varied portfolio stretching back to the early 1930s. His classical and highly orchestrated approach laid the foundations for many modern photographers working today, and his style can be seen as a direct response to the major avant-garde art movements of the 1920s like Bauhaus and Art Deco.
Stints in bohemian 1930s Paris and post-war New York saw him mix with high society, eminent politicians and celebrities, photographing some of the most influential names the world has ever known in a career spanning more than 60 years.
Throughout his life he worked extensively for Vogue, and his elegant, highly feminine approach came to embody the visual style of the magazine. This is a look back at his definitive legacy.
Early Life and Career in Paris
Born in 1906 in Weissenfels, a small town in eastern Germany, Horst was the son of a successful, middle-class merchant. Despite a relatively conservative upbringing, art and design interested him from a young age and it soon became his ambition to move away from home to study architecture. He had long held Paris in high regard, as it was a city with a raucous reputation and vibrant arts culture. He finally acquired a job there in 1930 as an architect, practicing under the legendary Le Corbusier.
Paris afforded Horst the artistic freedom he had always craved and it wasn’t long before he began visiting theatres, museums and galleries with his new social group. He soon met Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a nobleman and Vogue photographer, who hired Horst as his assistant. The two entered into a relationship, travelled extensively and began to photograph members of Parisian high society.
The first photographs to carry Horst’s by-line appeared in December 1931 when French Vogue published an advertising campaign he shot for a perfume called Klytia. This was the start of a professional relationship with the publication that would span the next 60 years. Even at this early point in his career his work exuded calmness and serenity, with particular attention paid to the interplay of light and shadow. The models were solitary and distant and his photographic style succinctly captured the opulent feel of the 1930s.
Further works with Mademoiselle Zelinsky modelling a Lucien Lelong dress for French Vogue showcased his highly orchestrated methodology and his keen eye for detail. He was a perfectionist who left nothing to chance, and would often set up his shoots the day before so he could work the following morning with no technical or practical distractions. However, this lack of spontaneity never once dulled the feeling of emotion and drama in his photographs.
The Mainbocher Corset
In August 1939, hours before he left Paris to move to New York, he shot perhaps his most famous and recognisable work, The Mainbocher Corset. With the model leaning forward, back slightly arched, head tilted to one side and arms raised, the shot demonstrates the lightness of touch that Horst possessed. Yet, with the shadows playing off her back and the corset slightly undone, there is a subtle underlying sexuality that gives the image its enduring quality.
Horst later said that it was the first time he had shot a corset, “It wasn’t easy. It looks as though there is only one light source. But there were reflectors and extra spotlights as well. I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t repeat it. It was created by emotion.” This quote says a lot about Horst’s approach. He was intricate in his planning and fastidious with his lighting, often spending days getting the scene exactly how he wanted.
His Move to New York
Arriving in New York in 1939, Horst continued his work with Condé Nast’s Vogue. His popularity and prodigious work rate in Paris, coupled with a successful show at Germain Seligman’s art gallery in 1938, allowed him to work on some of the publication’s biggest shoots. The resulting years would see portraiture once again become a central focus as he immersed himself in New York society. He would go on to photograph people such as Harry Truman, Coco Chanel, Andy Warhol, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dali and Truman Capote.
It was around this period that he created some of the most memorable of his 94 Vogue covers. In 1940 he shot Lisa Fonssagrives (Irving Penn’s wife) wearing a blue and white swimsuit, contorting her body into the shape of the letter V. Another classic, ‘Lipstick, Quick!’, depicted model Muriel Maxwell in a white top with matching sunglasses. The shot of her using the inside mirror of her purse to apply red lipstick made bold use of colour, and caught the mood of the day perfectly.
In May 1941 he created his first Vogue cover with Alexander Liberman, the publication’s hugely influential artistic director and a man often credited with creating the formula of the modern day fashion magazine. The now famous image, entitled “Having a Ball,” shows a swimming costume clad woman balancing a large red ball in the air with her feet.
These photographs show a distinct stylistic shift for Horst. At the start of his career his models were almost void of personality, transformed by the elaborate studio set ups into extravagant clothes hangers or objects for light and shadow to dance off. However these three images represent a playful side to Horst and show a more humanistic approach to his work.
WWII and Its Aftermath
Horst applied for US citizenship in 1940, one year before Nazi Germany declared war on America. He passed a medical and joined the US Army in the summer of 1942, but it wasn’t until 1943 that he received his basic training. Horst worked the remainder of the war as a photographer and in 1945 returned to Vogue to work alongside Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn.
After the war, fashion took on an even greater role in contemporary culture. Publishers such as Condé Nast wanted their magazines to portray a new, free way of life and the latest collections from the premier fashion houses of Europe were much in demand. Reflecting this shift in mood (and perhaps the growing influence of Harper’s Bazaar photographer, Richard Avedon), Horst’s studio work featured more excitement and vitality than ever before.
In the years that followed, coountless advertising shoots, fashion editorials and classical portraiture work proved lucrative for Horst, but the arrival in 1961 of Diana Vreeland as editor of American Vogue signalled a change in his professional output. She persuaded him to travel the world and photograph the lives and houses of wealthy, upper-class individuals. This new direction appealed to Horst, whose passion for portraits, still life and architecture had remained a constant throughout his life.
When Vreeland left Vogue in 1971, Horst remained highly prolific and his appetite to shoot a range of subjects and locations never waned. Jerry Hall in Barbados; Duran Duran in London; Tom Wolfe, Brooke Shields and Roy Lichtenstein in New York all posed for his camera. He shot for Yves Saint Laurent, Coco Chanel and the costumes of the New York City Ballet. Earls, dukes and princesses all lined up to sit for him.
After the death of his close friends Hoyningen-Huene and Coco Chanel, Horst worked ever increasingly for Vogue’s sister publication, House & Garden, touring Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Central America. Although he continued to shoot for Vogue and have his work published in the Italian, French and British editions, the later part of his life was dedicated to writing books and exhibiting his photography around the world.
Horst’s last commercial work was shot for British Vogue in 1991 and he died eight years later at his home in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, aged 93.
In an era dominated by Edward Steichen, the father of modern fashion photography, Horst managed to stand apart from the master and become an originator in his own right. Light and silhouette were all characteristics reminiscent of Steichen’s style, but Horst managed to impregnate a distance and elegance into his work, leaving unanswered questions in every frame.
He influenced a whole generation of photographers (including Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe) and in recent times there has been a distinct shift back to the highly orchestrated studio shots that became his trademark all those years ago. While his contemporaries copied Steichen, Horst’s talent and interest in the many varied disciplines of design — everything from architecture to furniture — opened up new and exciting avenues for him to explore, and his professional output was ever richer for it.
Check back next month for a fresh instalment of Know Your Photographers.
- Words: Charlie Haywood