Horst: A Global Photographer

Perspolis Persia image of bull and palace 1950

Think a fashion photographer has nothing to do with travel? Think again. A new exhibition at the V&A pays tribute to one of the best international photographers of the 20th century, known for his eye-catching fashion images such as Mainbocher Corset (1939), but with a wealth of travel experience under his belt too.

The German-born artist known as Horst P. Horst mainly split his time between the hectic cities of Paris and New York and managed to squeeze in quite a few breathtaking escapades during his 93 years. Here are some of the geographical highlights of Horst: Photographer of Style

Photographer of Style for Vogue Magazine Horst
The exhibition’s leading image shows Horst’s eye for detail.

World Influences

The exhibition highlights some of Horst’s key reference points, including classical sculpture and architecture; model Carmen Dell’Orefice, who posed for him aged 15, even said “he saw me as a living sculpture”. You can see how he translated bodies into beautiful portraits for publications like Vogue (the British, French and American versions) and Life Magazine, highlighting angular cheekbones, feminine curves or voluminous dresses to play around with the silhouette. He would even get the chance to immerse himself in Greek statues and architecture with a 1939 commission to Athens for Vogue.

Ever the art lover, Horst was a regular at the Louvre in Paris. Explanatory notes describing two striking 1943 photos, Odalisque I and II, tell us that he was probably giving a nod to the Louvre painting Grande Odalisque, by Ingres (1814), which showed a female slave in a Turkish harem, tapping into the 19th century trend for all things Oriental. These more daring photos weren’t suitable for the readers of Vogue, but they show his experimental tendencies. Another arty moment came with the shooting of Salvador Dalí’s costumes for the Dream of Venus Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, with a generous Dalí helping of oysters and lobsters in unusual places.

Additionally, curator Susanna Brown noted that Horst’s German upbringing had a bearing on his work. As the exhibition revealed, Germany enjoyed ‘a celebration of the natural body’ during the 1920s, which could well have influenced his style. He studied design and carpentry at this time (taught by the famous Bauhaus icon Walter Gropius) in Hamburg, which exposed him to modern design ideas. With a melting pot of inspiration from around the world, his career was never going to be boring.

Persian architecture in monochrome 1950
One of many Persepolis shots. Credit: V&A and Condé Nast/Horst Estate.

Travel Moments

The photographer’s first big journey away from the fashion world was in 1949, when he took a road trip from Beirut to Persepolis with his partner, Valentine Lawford, who worked for the British Council in Tehran. Persepolis, which had been the capital of the vast Persian empire, was the perfect place for him to capture the changing light, and his individual exposures are beautiful. He explored the intricate Palace of Xerxes and also saw examples of Islamic architecture further afield at Isfahan in Iran. This then led to another adventure, to Israel, on behalf of Vogue, who had already published and championed his Persian photos.

As he kept a diary during his travels, it’s easy to gain extra insight into Horst’s experiences. He found European equivalents for the Middle Eastern buildings around him – in Damascus ‘the streets resembled medieval European architecture like Rothenburg [Germany]…’ and a sculpture in Lebanon was ‘reminiscent of the late Renaissance’. This is a habit I know too well, as I’ve found myself thinking of Havana when in Lisbon, and cities in Peru have reminded me of Madrid. I guess, as creatures of habit, we instinctively rack our brains for the familiar when we see something new.

Horst in the studio with Swedish model Fonssagrives.
The man at work with model Lisa Fonssagrives. Credit: Guardian.com. Original photo: Roy Stevens/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images.

Understanding Tribes

One of the most vibrant places Horst visited was southern Iran, where he met the nomadic Qashqa’i tribe, known for their traditional kilim rugs – he was actually asked to choose his favourite kilim designs during a 10 day trip with Lawford. Keen to document the tribe’s lifestyle during their annual migration period, he got to know everyone from the children to the elders. Images of men herding sheep and camel, figures sheltering in tents, and a young boy holding an eagle, are particularly memorable.

The Qashqa’i suffered in the 1920s and 30s under Reza Shah’s Iranian rule, where they were forced to settle in villages and abandon their nomadic farming habits. Fortunately when Reza Shah was overthrown in 1941 they were given their freedom again, so by the time Horst visited he was able to see them roaming independently. In later years they became marginalised again by the Iranian state, but the 1950 photos show them at their best.

Whilst Horst’s photos of the Qashqa’i show his bold sense of adventure, he was better known for documenting an even bigger tribe – the designers, aristocrats and models at the heart of the fashion industry. This led him from night shoots at Parisian couture houses to the streets of New York and the glamour of the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Anyone who was anyone sat for their portrait with him, including various actresses, cosmetics legend Helena Rubinstein, the great Coco Chanel (who he adored and called ‘the centre of the circus’), and royalty – in 1934 he snapped Princess Karam of Kapurthala, a society idol and muse to the likes of Man Ray and Cecil Beaton.

Patterns From Nature 1946 photo book
A kaleidoscopic nature pattern by the photographer. Credit: V&A and Condé Nast / Horst Estate.

Improve Your Travel Photography: Takeaways From Horst

  • As Susanna Brown described, Horst was ‘a magician of light’; he recognised that lighting can transform the mood and the outcome of your photo. Don’t be afraid to get dramatic with darker images and strong contrasts.
  • A bit of clever retouching can complete your image. Even in the 1930s, his photos were being retouched to remove irrelevant details and to accentuate waistlines and eyelashes. Today, you can get creative with Photoshop or even Instagram tweaks.
  • Remember that everyday items can be great subject matter. Said to have had ‘relentless visual curiosity’, Horst created hypnotic patterns based on close-ups of plants, trees and shells in 1946; he also snapped shots of his own home for a Vogue spread, 20 years on.

This really is a multi-layered exhibition that won’t just appeal to fashion lovers; Horst’s work tells us so much about the global language of design and the need to understand other cultures. I’d definitely recommend it to curious travellers.

Horst: Photographer of Style runs at the V&A (Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL) until 4th January 2015.

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