For an exhibition to be entitled 'Horst: Photographer of Style', I realised that the photographer behind the exhibition must be someone with an astonishingly good eye for what looks good. Consider how many people out there would wish to claim ownership of that prestigious title, 'Photographer of Style'.
I must admit that I was not familiar with Horst's work before I visited the exhibition at the V&A, and what intrigued me to learn more about Horst's work was not the prestigious accolade, but the stunning image used to advertise the exhibition. An image that made me stop and stare at the Underground poster whilst in a hurry to get home in the rush hour. The image (below right) depicts a woman in white sunglasses applying red lipstick, which may sound simple enough to execute. But it is an image of such, well, what it says on the tin, style. I needed to learn more about the photographer who could create such an iconic shot.
Left: Hat and coat-dress by Bergdorf Goodman, modelled by Estrella Boissevain, 1938
Right: Muriel Maxwell, American Vogue, 1939
Entering the exhibition, the mood is set by a low lit corridor lined with what felt like hundreds of black and white prints. Socialites and It girls, Horst had contacts in high places. A picture of the man himself with Coco Chanel at a glamorous masquerade party was a favourite of mine. Each small black and white print is exquisitely executed. I love the way Horst used the fabrics of the dresses worn in the images, like satins and silks, to add a fairytale aspect to each print. A selection of beautiful gowns are displayed on mannequins at the head of the corridor. I can only imagine how wearing such a stunning dress must feel.
Turning left out of the corridor, you enter the rest of the exhibition. Only then can you realise how vast and impressive the collection of Horst's work is; the walls are filled with his prints. Interestingly, Horst worked with Dali for a number of images, and this surreal aspect feeds through the exhibition into all of his pictures. Nothing is quite what it seems, there is a dreamlike quality to Horst's style, encouraging the viewer to look again and again at each image and question what is out of the ordinary.
I particularly enjoyed looking at the collection of the many Vogue covers captured by Horst. They are fun fashion images, undoubtedly stylish. A favourite is a summery shot of a model with a beach ball (below left); who could look at such a playful shot without smiling? Horst certainly knows how to add the fun to fashion, whilst still retaining that Vogue level of chic.
Left: Summer Fashions, American Vogue cover, 15 May, 1941
Right: Mainbocher Corset (pink satin corset by Detolle), Paris, 1939
Whilst Horst is perhaps most celebrated for the immense number of Vogue covers he created, the exhibition still offers plenty for those who care little for fashion. Also displayed are Horst's images of the Persian Empire; incredible shots of the architecture of a lost culture. Just through gazing at the jaw dropping image of a huge Bull's head statue excited an interest to find out more about the people who could create statues of such magnitude.
A selection of Horst's still life work is displayed. Again, the playful and surreal element carries through. A close up image of a red cabbage and a mosaic style print of foliage made me look twice, questioning what it was I was looking at.
Patterns from Nature Photographic Collage, about 1945.
There is a display and slide show of Horst's images of interior design, many from his own home. These are decadent interiors, mirroring the high society images and the subjects he was evidently mixing with at the time.
Horst not only worked well with the fabric of dresses in shots, but also the human form. There are a number of prints displaying the body in unusual and intriguing contortions. Some are with props that add a mystical edge, like a golden harp that looks like it belongs to a Greek God.
Thus it came to register with me that by being named 'The Photographer of Style' did not mean simply a photographer of fashion. Horst's work has so much more to offer, skills that feeds into all his work, making him a worthy recipient of the title. The surreal, fun and intriguing undercurrent runs through all his prints, meaning it cannot be questioned that his sense of style transcends both fashion and time.
'Horst: Photographer of Style' is an epic collection, offering a whistle-stop tour through Horst's career. There are so many incredible images on display you could lose days examining his work. The exhibition offered the perfect introduction to Horst's unquestionably stylish work, and I left wanting to know more about the man behind the pictures. Horst evidently has a fascinating life story to accompany, which I learnt more about here.
I strongly urge you to visit this exhibition, whether you have an interest in photography or not. Hopefully you will come away as impressed and inspired as I have.
Words: Nicola Bligh
Images: © Condé Nast/Horst Estate