Horst: Photographer Of Style
Friday, 03 October 2014

Horst: Photographer Of Style

The allure of seduction and glamour is evident everywhere from this master of photography

Written by Robin Dutt
Robin-Dutt-176They really don’t make them as they used to. With all our contemporary filmic trickery – how clever to make people look beautiful when they are not – these vintage photographs are sentinels of what we have lost and seemingly not learnt anything from. But it is not only the vacuity of the contemporary photographer’s lack of verve and reliance on irony and shock. I’m afraid it is the subject matter too. Horst P Horst (1906-1999) was a visionary, a visual poet, surrealist and sensualist.

His portraiture is delicious, searing, direct, immediate and darn it, sexy. Even though he was mostly known for his groundbreaking fashion work, the way he interpreted fashion was far from the ordinary. In 1984, he said that ‘fashion is an expression of the times. Elegance is something else again.’

It might also be worth remembering sage masters such as Oscar Wilde and Jean Cocteau. The first stated that fashion represents something so ugly that it has to be altered every six months and the latter archly declaimed that ‘One must feel sorry for fashion. She has such a short time to live.’

These sentiments, observations, truisms, form the basis of this stunning show, which encapsulates the work of a master. Perhaps that phrase is overused but in Horst’s case it cannot be emphasised enough.

Everyone, yes everyone, will be familiar with at least one iconic image by Horst. Of course there is the famous image of the corseted model, almost balletic in sueded gradations of blacks and whites and somehow reminiscent of an abandoned and yet centre-stage figure in a Salvador Dalí canvas. Think Madonna’s video reprise of the same scene. A model blowing smoke through a disc-net hat, images of a model in an A-line dress with oversize flower, the circumference of which is wider than her waist, the abandoned nature morte rose suggesting a cast-off gift from a stage-door Johnny. And so many more.

Of course comparisons with Beaton, Penn, Avedon, French and so on are obvious but serve also to show just what a rich and inspirational time Horst was working in. Stars were stars. Clothes were statements of intent, not vehicles for advertising. The allure of seduction and glamour is everywhere. It is certainly worth remembering the original meaning of ‘photography’ in Horst’s case. It means ‘drawing with light’. Blinded by beauty, enthralled by elegance. I am furious with his genius. 

Until 4 January 2015 at Victoria & Albert Museum, London SW7: 020-7420 9736, www.vam.ac.uk

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