The fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld is most famous for being just that. After arriving in New York in 1941, he was immediately put on contract by Harper’s Bazaar where he quickly gained recognition for his innovative and experimental images. Three years later he began freelancing for Vogue where he shot more covers than any photographer before or since. It is testament to his enduring influence that contemporary photographers such as Nick Knight and Sølve Sundsbø continue to cite his groundbreaking work as inspiration.

Yet the full story – and artistic oeuvre – of Erwin Blumenfeld does not begin and end with his work for magazines or advertising campaigns such as those he created for Helena Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden and L'Oreal.

It was while living in the Netherlands from 1918 that Berlin-born Blumenfeld first developed his passion for photography when he discovered a dark room in the premises of his leather handbag boutique. After his business went bankrupt, he started taking portraits of his former clients. Moving to Paris in 1936 (forcibly due to the German occupation), Blumenfeld began working as a photographer full time.

Teaching himself not only the art of photography but also collage, photomontage and drawing, it was at this early point in his career that Blumenfeld first pursued his own unique style of image making. Inspired by the Dadaist and Surrealist movements, he made radical satirical pieces that denounced power and totalitarianism. This was Blumenfeld as an artist, as far away from fashion photography as he could be.

Never exhibited by Blumenthal himself, it was only in 2009 that thanks to gallerist Benoit Shapiro some of these images were first exhibited by his Galerie le Minotaure at Paris’ FIAC art fair. They included an intense 1933 amalgamation of a map of Berlin and images of Hitler (the German dictator was a recurring theme in Blumenfeld’s personal work – he would later escape a concentration camp in 1940); a 1920 drawing and montage that features a sketch of Charlie Chaplin (another signature interest who Blumenfeld admired for being both successful and faithful to his vision); and a 1937 photograph titled Le Minotaure that features a statue of Venus topped with a calf’s head and scarf (an image that would later inspire a similar Picabia painting).

In stark contrast to the use of colour in fashion photography that Blumenfeld is known for having pioneered, a great deal of his little known personal work is in black and white. And although his work for magazines was utterly groundbreaking and recognizable, it lacked the radical use of overlay, repetition, fragmentation, and solarization found in his art photography.

Why the differences between his personal and commercial work? According to Blumenfeld’s son, Henri, his father only worked for magazines and beauty brands to earn money. “He had quite mixed feelings about fashion photography,” said Henri in 2011. “He despised that world.” Indeed, in Blumenfeld’s autobiography he talked very little of photography, instead recounting anecdotes about his friends, beliefs and life. And in his book 'My One Hundred Best Photos' he only included four of his fashion images. Because before being a fashion photographer, Blumenfeld was an innovator, experimenter and, above all, an artist.

Galerie le Minotaure, Paris
2 Rue des Beaux Arts, 75006 Paris