Horst P Horst

The master of light, composition and creative imagery is currently on display at the McCord Museum in Montreal, QC. His name is Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann but you may know him under the eponym of Horst P. Horst, the legendary photographer who made iconic portraits and fashion photographs in the mid- 20th century. An exclusive to North America, the travelling exhibition “Horst: Photographer of Style” will be exposed in Quebec’s metropolis until August 23rd 2015. Produced by the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, the exhibition features approximately 250 vintage prints, sketchbooks, archival footage, contacts sheets and magazines that highlight Horst’s successful career as well as his creative process and artistic influences.

Originally from Germany, Horst made his breakthrough in the field when he moved to Paris in 1930. Horst met George Hoyningen-Huene who introduced him to photography and the aristocratic high society of Paris. Surrounded by designers such as Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli or Russian models Ludmila Feodoseyevna and Lyla Zelensky, the photographer made use of his entourage’s talents to craft his images. By the 1930s, Condé Montrose Nast, the owner of Vogue, believed that photography enhanced the spreads of magazines. As a result, Horst joined Vogue Paris in 1931 and actively participated in the magazine’s efforts to feature meticulously composed photographs of women wearing designer clothing. These images slowly replaced drawn illustrations and forever changed the layout of fashion magazines.

Surrealism played an important role in the visual construction of Horst’s images. This cultural movement that was fascinated by dreams and the unconscious, inspired the photographer to craft a different reality through images. He used the trompe-l’oeil technique in his still life photographs, which provided a mystical and illusory character. By the mid 1930s, Horst and surrealist painter Salvador Dali collaborated on a series of photographs. These two artists shared a fascination for the principles of surrealism, the female body and the eroticism of the human figure. Despite Horst legacy to photography of elegant models dressed in the latest designer wears, his photographic series titled “Electric Beauty” shot in 1939 offered a critic on the surreals standards of beauty in the fashion industry. These images portray a woman wearing a heat mask with one legged covered in shaving cream and the other in a bucket of suds. Her body is covered with cords and surrounded by beauty products. This image highlights the beauty regimes and standards women are confined to.

By August 1939, Horst captured his most appraised photograph titled “Mainbocher Corset”. The photographer wanted to incarnate the beauty and elegance of the Roman goddess Venus. This photograph demonstrates the influence of ancient Greek ideals of physical beauty. This is enhanced through the photographer’s careful preparation of the lighting and studio set-up. As for the corset, it was designed by Détolle for the American couturier Main Rousseau Bocher. Shot on a large camera mounted on a stand, this image was the last assignment Horst took in France. A few hours later, he boarded the first boat heading to America, as a general mounting fear in France erupted with the Second World War approaching.

Following the acquisition of the american citizenship in 1943, the photographer decided to legally change his original surname of Bohrmann to Horst, in order to avoid relational confusions with the nazi leader Martin Bormann. In America, Horst became notorious for photographing famous figures such as Bette Davis, Marlene Dietrich and the United States presidents.

The exhibition also features photographs of Horst taken during his trip in the Middle East between 1949 and 1950. The photographer documented the majestic ruins of Persepolis, the coast of the Caspian Sea, and the migration of the Qashqai nomadic tribe in Iran. This photographic reportage offered a glimpse of the East for Vogue magazine’s readership.

His project titled “Patterns from Nature”, also on display at the McCord Museum, is distinctly different from his high glamour images of the fashion industry. This series presents black and white close-ups of botanical plants, flowers and shells. Inspired by the works of photographer Karl Blossfeldt, Horst was struck by “their revelation of the similarity of the vegetable forms to art forms like wrought iron and Gothic architecture.”Horst was interested in experimenting with the technical concept of ‘photographic seeing’- the act of looking at a scene, not looking from the perspective of the eye, but the camera.

The exhibition finishes on male nudes, shot in the early 1950s, that reveal Horst’s fascination for form and capturing the idealized human body. These images were reprinted in the 1980s using platinum prints, a printing process that provides the greatest tonal range and durability.