Let There Be Light
The essence of things human is often found in a tension between opposites: good – evil, attractive – repulsive, love – hate. Few artists demonstrate this better than German born photographer Horst P. Horst. Celebrated with a far-reaching retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Horst’s works stands as a manifest: the lure of light lies in the shadows.
Horst’s photography is characterised by a controlled play on light and shadows, a highly innovative technique when he started working as a photographer, in the 1930s. Horts truly stands as the modern master of the chiaroscuro.
Horst’s practice was influenced by an apprenticeship in the atelier of architect Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier acknowledged light as one of the fundamental elements of architecture. ‘Our eyes are made to see forms in light; light and shade reveal these forms.’ This idea Le Corbusier applied to architecture, Horst made his own in photography.
Curated by Susanna Brown, the V&A exhibition unveils Horst’s creative genius and versatility. Showcasing more than 250 photographs – some from the Condé Nast Archive, – the show is subdivided in ten sections: Haute Couture, Surrealism, Stage and Screen, Travel, Patterns from Nature, The Studio, Fashion in Colours, Living in Style, Nudes, and Platinum.
Horst’s relation to fashion is the thread of the exhibition. It runs through all aspects of the photographer’s practice: the early works as Baron George Hoyningen-Huene’s assistant; the affirmation of his autonomy and his move to Vogue in the early 30s; the relationship, both friendly and creative, with fashion designers – Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli – and with models – Carmen Dell’Orefice, Lisa Fonssagrives; finally from the mid-30s, his takeover as Vogue’s primary photographer.
Horst best known photograph may be the 1939 picture of a Mainbocher corset. The Victoria and Albert museum displays the photograph published in an edition of Vogue Paris that year, next to the shot Horst took, before he edited it. The original take is somehow flat; it shows the corset was a little loose. In the edited version, the corset tightly embraces the curves of the model; Horst modified the light to hit the silhouette and enhance its voluptuous shapes and details. Chiaroscuro swells the image with illusory depth.
Horst images do not simply depict a scene. By ‘taming’ the light, the photographer gives depth to his subjects: they gain in ‘three-dimensionality,’ their contours are smoothened.
Horst was in fact an ‘image maker;’ obsessive about the design of his sets, he had to control every aspect of their design.
His ability to ‘invent’ images and create uncanny effects combining lights, objects and bodies led Horst to collaborate with the Surrealists. Fashion photography and Surrealism as an artistic movement developed in parallel: Man Ray, the first surrealist photographer, too carried on his experimentations while working as a fashion photographer for Vogue. Collaborating with Salvador Dali and Elsa Schiaparelli, Horst lent his eyes and skills to turn into photographs a surrealist interpretation of the world, a world transformed with sublime queerness into a ‘dream within a dream’.
The V&A exhibition undertakes to show how Horst applied this style to other themes that captured his attention besides fashion. Sections of the exhibition are dedicated to portraits of high society and Hollywood stars, to travels to the East, to studies on nature and its patterns; until right before the end of the exhibition, in a corner, hangs a series of photographs depicting male nudes – a new and unexpected subject, of great impact. The curatorial choice to put these images at the very end of the exhibition strengthens our understanding of Horst’s identity as a photographer.
These few photographs – much bolder in composition and audacious in framing than most in exhibition – hold a powerful message.They show how Horst handled his subject, no matter its nature; how his eye travelled; how he tamed light; how all details were controlled.
These few pictures have a strong architecture and make a clear statement about Horst’s style.
Horst shaped a very personal visual language. While being well aware of the changes in trends and fashions, he remained faithful to his style throughout his long career. As Horst himself said ‘fashion is an expression of the times, elegance is something else again’.
Elegance is an attitude that has to do with confidence, more than with fashion. Fashion is by definition, volatile and time-obsessed. A signature style is not concerned with keeping up with time; it is about being faithful to the point of negating time and its flight. It leads and never follows. This positive ‘stubbornness’ makes Horst a master: someone whose work will be remembered for its consistency, as well as for its undeniable beauty.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Opened: daily 10.00 to 17.45, till 22.00 Fridays
Standard entry fee: £9.00