Condé Nast’s Shawn Waldron on How Horst P. Horst Revolutionized Fashion Photography

Artsy Editorial
Sep 11, 2013 2:14PM

As the Senior Director of Archives and Records at Condé Nast in New York, Shawn Waldron has access to some of the world’s most iconic images. But his job doesn’t just entail cataloguing and studying photographs of stunning women taken by photographers who have shaped the history (and will be the future) of fashion photography—but also preserving the legacy of photographers who have been influential to the entire field of photography. Horst P. Horst, born at the turn of the 20th century as Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann, is one such photographer. While Horst’s name might not be as recognizable as those he influenced—including Herb Ritts and Robert Mapplethorpe—his photography is. Waldron spoke with Artsy’s Marina Cashdan about what makes Horst’s photographs so transcendental. He shared the juicy stories behind a few of Horst’s iconic images and his foray into color photography, and reveals what made Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn Horst’s favorite model and muse.

Artsy: Can you tell us a little bit about the Condé Nast Archive—its history, and your history working with it?

Shawn Waldron: Condé Nast has had an archive since the 1920s, although back then it was called the morgue. Mr. Nast was very aware of the value of the material being generated by his publications and was willing to invest in maintaining and protecting it. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in the magazine publishing world.

This is my tenth year at the company. I was originally hired as an archivist and worked my way up to director with responsibility for the company’s physical archive and corporate records program.

Artsy: What was your first encounter with Horst P. Horst? And, generally, what is his significance within the history of photography and, more specifically, fashion photography?

SW: As a lover of photography I have been aware of Horst’s work for many years, but it wasn’t until I came to Condé Nast that I truly became aware of the extensive body of work and the man behind it. Obviously Mainbocher Corset is one of the icons not just of Condé Nast’s collection, but the genre of fashion photography. Horst was one of the most prolific and dominant photographers of the 1930s and ’40s. His approach was modern but classical. He did not study photography in school but learned by watching his mentor, George Hoyningen-Huene. Given his limited training, the speed in which he developed technically was incredible. Horst’s approach to photography was highly reflective of his personal refinement and cultured background. He approached the world with open eyes and felt that the primary goal of art was to capture beauty. As he famously stated, he was a lover of mankind, and that love is evident in his work.

Artsy: What subsequent photographers were directly influenced by Horst?

SW: The name that immediately comes to mind is Herb Ritts. The parallels between the lines of Horst’s and Ritt’s subjects is striking. A not so obvious reference can be seen in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe. The way in which Mapplethorpe arranged  objects, particularly in his still life work, was obviously influenced by  Horst. One other is photographer Duane Michals, who put it simply: “He was an inspiration for me personally, and the best.”

Artsy: Can you give us some background on this particular collection, starting with the relationship between Horst and his model and muse, Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn, who appears as the main protagonist in this collection?

SW: Horst and Lisa Fonssagrives began their careers around the same time. Within a few years, Lisa was on her way to becoming one of the world’s top fashion models, a position she would hold well into the 1950s. In 1938, Erwin Blumenfeld cemented her status when he captured her hanging off the top of the Eiffel Tower by one hand for Paris Vogue. Her obvious beauty and comfort with her own body aside, Lisa’s professionalism, patience, and willingness to collaborate made her a favorite of many photographers, Horst included. The two of them worked together on dozens of shoots for Vogue over two decades. Horst also used her extensively in his personal work.

Artsy: How does this relationship fit into the historical landscape of model and photographer, or model as muse?

SW: Clearly the best relationships between photographer and model rely on a personal connection of some sort. Often, as with Stieglitz and O’KeeffeMan Ray and Lee Miller, or David Bailey and Jean Shrimpton, it is romantic passion providing the spark. The Platonic relationship between Horst and Lisa centered around an inherent trust and mutual respect. Lisa herself said, “I was always aware that Horst had a warm feeling for the personality, the sexuality of me as a model. Even at our very first sitting, when we were both so inexperienced, I felt lapped in calm and beauty and luxury and glamour—and yet as though I were in my own house; not just posing in it, but living in it, as myself.” When Horst set out to shoot his first series of nudes, Lisa was his first choice as the sitter. He said that Lisa, “had a very beautiful body and was not afraid of her body—she was used to Nacktkultur.” The resulting images of Lisa with Harp are quintessential Horst photographs.  

Artsy: So Lisa with Harp (1939) was Horst’s first nude?

SW: Yes, it’s amazing to think that this was Horst’s first attempt at shooting a nude, and yet it’s so powerful and so immediately iconic. His approach: using a harp, which is a very classic instrument, and laying that image over [the nude]—you’ve got double exposure, which is challenging. He’s dealing with not only the technical challenges of shooting a nude and presenting it in a beautiful way for the first time, but also adding the particular technical challenge of double exposure. I think the way that he handled it is excellent.

Artsy: What makes these photographs quintessentially Horst?

SW: Horst’s work with Lisa captures all of the hallmarks of a strong Horst photograph. Commonly referred to as “master of light and shadow” Horst’s photos are  carefully staged and painstakingly lit. They are very much about the body as object—there no strong faces filling the frames staring back at the viewer. Eyes, when seen, are demure. Design elements are high and classic—columns and trompe l’oeil abound—but also very spare. Compare them with the elaborate sets constructed by Cecil Beaton, one of Horst’s contemporaries at Vogue, and you see the ongoing process of refinement ultimately achieved in the Lisa photos.

Artsy: And what sets them apart from other Horst photographs?

SW: Horst’s nude work with Lisa was among the earliest works he created for himself, meaning for art’s sake as opposed to for publication. They were pursuits of beauty. Staff photographers working in the Condé Nast studios were given ample time for experimentation. Horst took advantage of that opportunity. Access to state-of-the-art equipment and studios, assistants, and top talent were there for the taking. All that was required was desire and talent. Horst, along with Beaton and John Rawlings, flourished in the Condé Nast Studio environment, and the work with Lisa is a testament to his success. The combination of Horst’s talent, Lisa’s qualities, and their relationship led to the creation of photographs that have transcended even their original intent and proven timeless.

Artsy: Can you talk about Horst and color photography?

SW: Horst was one of the first Vogue photographers that routinely shot in color including many of the earliest color covers. He started [using color] in the late 1930s. In the beginning, the technical challenges of rendering accurate color were abundant. Manufacturers and printers spent years  trying to find the proper balance. If you look at some of the early color [photography], it’s hyper-saturated; it doesn’t even look real. Given that, Horst moved into color very seamlessly; he really had a good sense of color. Instead of using light and shadow as he did in black-and-white [photography]—essentially using the gray scale—he  used blocks of color. His refined palette and strong sense of balance and composition shines through in his color work. Additionally, the lighting that served him so well in black-and-white was also very helpful in the early days of color photography.

Artsy: While Horst is primarily known for his photographs of women and fashion, he also was prolific in shooting interiors and still lifes. Can you talk about this aspect of his practice?

SW: His very first assignments for Paris Vogue in 1935 were product shots, essentially still lifes. When Diana Vreeland came to Vogue in the early 1960s Horst was still on staff. Having been in the business for decades and a Vogue reader for even longer, Vreeland knew Horst’s history. The truth of the matter is that his style of photography had slowly fallen out of favor in the 1950s fashion world and he had not been able to adapt. When Vreeland arrived at Vogue, Horst and his long time romantic partner, Valentine Lawford, were traveling heavily visiting friends and associates around the world. The two men were well connected in the upper circles of society and the art world. Vreeland, sensing an opportunity, asked Horst to begin photographing the homes and gardens of the rich and famous, many of whom were already friends or associates of the pair. Horst jumped at the chance. The resulting series of articles, with text by Lawford and photos by Horst, continued into the 1970s and brought the private lives of European aristocracy and the American meritocracy into the pages of Vogue.

In addition, Horst travel extensively and produced very strong travel photos, most of which have never been published.

Shawn Waldron is the Senior Director, Archives and Records at Conde Nast in New York. He has contributed to a number of books and exhibition catalogs including Benito: Los Anos de Nueva York, which he  curated. Shawn has also appeared in a number of documentary films including In Vogue: The Editor's Eye and The Man Who Shot Beautiful Women. He Instagrams pictures of his life, kids and Jack Russell terrier @shawnwald.

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