Horst P. Horst (born Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann in Germany, 1906-1999) rivalled the great fashion and portrait photographers of the 20th century, such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. His career spanned 60 years, from his first photo credit in 1931, and included 94 Vogue covers. Horst was described in Vogue as “photography’s alchemist,” so adept was he at transmuting light into dramatic atmosphere. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the art of strong contrast between light and dark, which he harnessed with such severe precision that it sometimes took him two days to construct his set.
Trained in architecture and design, Horst’s early pieces feature women given import by a fantasy of neoclassical arches and pillars. He had an eye for exquisitely expressive hands, which he eventually isolated in a 1941 surrealist portrait of four hands, two real and two of mannequins. Later, he became one of the first photographers to perfect the newly available colour techniques. In the 1960s, working for Vogue’s “Fashions in Living” pages, he photographed the interiors and gardens of the stars, from Andy Warhol to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Horst was adored by his models, evidenced by their effusive words of affection. One of his muses, Lisa Fonssagrives, said: “I became a model because he made me one.” He was so much a part of the fashion family that when he fought in WWII his identification tags gave the contact details of Edna Chase, editor of US Vogue.
Obfuscation of the inner world of the woman is a theme in Horst’s portraits. His models stare into the distance, their eyes often bewilderingly sad and far away, evoking unanswerable questions. The viewer becomes desperate to know the woman who is withheld. This invitation and frustration of the gaze are what holds the onlooker in such thrall of Horst’s images.
Composite photo of Susann Shaw, American Vogue Cover 1943
The picture looks at first like images of a woman reflected on shards of mirror, but on closer inspection the blue scarf from one neck flows around another’s head. A disembodied mouth and an elongated neck are reminiscent of Horst’s surrealist explorations of the 1930s. It was shot in Horst’s studio, and yet the image is banished to a dream world. The women both invite and deflect the male gaze; an image of one alone would allow the viewer to stare, but in this arrangement each figure directs the eye elsewhere, agitating the viewer who is denied a focus. The faces overhang the edge of the image, which becomes an abstract pattern; red lips become flecks of colour. The whole is both beautiful and chaotic, seductive and disconcerting.