Eye to I: The Autobiography of a Photographerby Erwin Blumenfeld
The life of Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the century's best-known photographers, was by no means conventional. By turns acerbic, self-mocking, playful, even absurd, his autobiography is a compelling, virtuoso account of an extraordinary man. All his subjects - his Jewish family, the Germans, the Vichy French, his models, New York publishers - are dealt equal measures of… See more details below
The life of Erwin Blumenfeld, one of the century's best-known photographers, was by no means conventional. By turns acerbic, self-mocking, playful, even absurd, his autobiography is a compelling, virtuoso account of an extraordinary man. All his subjects - his Jewish family, the Germans, the Vichy French, his models, New York publishers - are dealt equal measures of wit, mockery, and merciless irony. He spares himself least of all.
Born in turn-of-the-century Berlin, Blumenfeld was drafted to serve in the First World War, first as an ambulance driver (although he couldn't drive) and then as a bookkeeper in a field brothel, and he was awarded the Iron Cross for giving his sergeant French lessons. Between the wars he was part of an avant- garde circle that included such artists as Else Lasker-Schuler, George Grosz, and members of the Dada movement. During the Second World War, Blumenfeld was interned in a series of French camps but eventually arrived in New York, where he found work with Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, producing many of their most memorable covers and becoming fashion's highest-paid photographer.
- Thames & Hudson
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- 6.87(w) x 9.51(h) x 1.75(d)
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1 Prenatal Education
Once upon a time, far too long ago, when man could still more or less understand the language of the birds, a cabbie with his homespun little rhyme, `Giddy-up, horsey, don't you stop, keep on goin' clippety-clop', was trotting my parents-to-be from Berlin's Royal Opera House in Unter den Linden to their apartment in Wilhelmstrasse. They were having an animated row behind the drawn blinds of the hackney. Papa, condemned yet again to Tristan's interminable `Liebestod', had struggled in vain not to nod off, in spite of his brand-new tails. (At high school I used to boast I was an anti-Wagnerian even before I was a lecherous gleam in my father's eye.)
Whatever the precise details, on 5 May 1896, at the midnight hour, I was unceremoniously thrust into my first concentration camp. Doubled up and tethered in solitary confinement for nine months and condemned to death under the most inhumane living conditions, I began learning how to die. (In the Twenties people used to ask, `Prenatal education, does that mean anything to you?') the Mamasbelly Concentration Camp: a subtropical dark-room, unpleasantly damp, poorly ventilated. Facilities for development: unsatisfactory, could do better fail. My fate: from dark-room to dark-room. In other words, I'm a bellyacher.
My memory, which I tend to brag about, has let me down in the matter of my conception: am I one of Onan's offspring, an illegal immigrant, or maybe even planned? Of course, I was only partially there, and the fact that I share that experience with the rest ofhumanity is small comfort. ('Our Erwin is usually only half there, he lets himself go, up in the clouds, tends to be silly.') The procreative act becomes so much our own flesh and blood that it is not surprising we tend to forget it. All that is left are variants of subconscious primal memories: cadenza ad libidum, we know the variations. We only have one thing to live out: our life, and it is spent searching for the theme that is concealed from us. Once begotten, that's the end of our free will. (`The freedom I sing ain't no such thing.' Ringelnatz)
Even while I'm vainly trying to feather my nest in Manhattan, that Isle of the Dead in the Augean stables that is New York, old age, the Stone Guest, is stealthily creeping up on me. Even if I had been able to foresee the predicament, nothing could have stopped it. I was always too young, too timid, too conventional. The road to heaven is paved with lame excuses. Not even my vanity could visualize me dying `young, in beauty, with vine leaves in my hair' (Ibsen was the chic disease before appendicitis). I have spent my whole life letting off suicidal steam, which some might call vitality. To date, everyone has had to die, yet immortality is just around the corner. It's every man for himself. Will I still manage to shuffle off this mortal coil?
Mother cleverly managed to combine a restless fidgetiness with an irritating habit of unpredictably jerky movements. My prison was getting more and more cramped by the minute. I had played at being a foetus for too long. One fine evening we both lost patience and something snapped. I tried to kick my way out. But there was no other way out of the frying pan and into the firing line than by being squeezed traumatically through the Bearing Straits out into the light of day. Mothers don't like separation, especially from their sons. Had she had her way, I'd still be stuck in there even now. I was bored to death with her everlasting 'An intelligent person is never bored'. Besides, her heart was so off-beat that I resolved to go my own way as quickly as possible and get my ticker going at a metronomic sixty a minute. To date, it has done its bounding duty over two hundred million times. I became a pathological counter and recounter. Only towards the end of this book, at the age of sixty-seven, did I have my first heart attack.
The midwife, Frau Ladislawa Kuhlmai, standing by on the alert, went into action. She gave me a nasty little nip in my soft cerebellum. This made me so furious that my mother responded with contractions which poisoned my life for good: labour began.
I got my own back on Frau Kuhlmai. Two years later, when my mother was expecting my younger brother, she went to consult the wise woman at her place in the milk market. Whilst the ladies were whispering about the mysteries of birth, I watered some imaginary roses in a dark corner of the room. Revenge is sweet. That particular piece of poetic licence got me a smack on the posterior, for all sins shall be paid for Here Below. Mostly.
2 The Medicine Man
As the waters broke into a promising trickle (inside it was more like the thunder of the Rhine Falls, threatening to drop me in it from a great height), merry jingle bells accompanied by muffled hoofbeats were heard in the snow outside. Our family doctor, put together from designs by Etc. Hoffmann, emerged in funereal solemnity from his rented coal-black sleigh, with the bearskin-coated cabbie at his heels carrying the bag with the instruments of torture (force-ceps and crowbar). It would have been beneath the dignity of a professional gentleman to carry it himself.
Dr Ludwig Grunwald: black stovepipe hat, dark-green Tyrolean loden cape, black frock coat, yellow kid gloves, reddish beard, bits of everything. Like all other Berlin medicine men, he spent the summer with rucksack and alpenstock in high spirits despite having a poor head for heights merrily yodelling his way from peak to peak. Just thinking of it made me feel peaky. His fondest ambition was to be in an avalanche, to fall just once from the Piz Palu via Grindelwald straight onto the front page of the newspaper. The long winter nights he spent fiddling his way through quartets Brahms, Beethoven, Schubert with three colleagues, or as a trio con brio when there were just two others.
His motto was `Prevention's the thing'. His prescriptions he wrote in hieroglyphics, something for everyone, to each his own. With extreme unction, he regularized our bowel movements in no time at all with herbal teas and lukewarm enemas. There was unsweetened cocoa made with water to block you up, rhubarbara and castor oil to get you going again. He was poor at taking one's pulse, while I, on the other hand, was good at thermometering. Even before I could count, I was able to produce any desired temperature. In those days fevers were exclusively rectal.
Belching, bowel disorders and heartburn he bombarded with balsam, bicarbonate of soda and bromide. Slight stomach aches were soothed by an infusion of camomileucalyptusmentholpeppermint with a few of Dr Hoffmann's drops, more serious ones by the removal of the appendix. Haemorrhoids he throttled with bismuth suppositories, which I, presumably under the highly infectious influence of Wilhelm Busch's urchins Max and Moritz, fed to horses in the street. Chapped hands he massaged with nitroglycerine (just add sugar and bang!), lumbago and mumps he cured by the laying on of hands combined with boiling-hot mustard plasters and blancmange compresses. For loss of appetite and listlessness, three drops of hydrochloric acid were put in our raspberry juice; the way they hissed on Mama's marble-topped table showed how strong they were. For debility there was either pigeon soup, or thin porridge with half an egg beaten up with sugar in it. If the debility increased and the patient's strength decreased there was Somatose and Sanatogen in powder form. For chronic anaemia there was cod-liver oi weh, followed by iron-rich spinach. For sore (saw) throats he prescribed frequent gargling with Ems salts, but only after he had pressed your furry tongue down so painfully with the handle of a silver spoon that you couldn't say AAAAAH. For whooping coughs there was Pertussin, for colds the modern germ-killer Formamint, for bronchial catarrh half a lemon in lukewarm water with a teaspoon of honey and a half tablet each of aspirin, antipyrin and pyramidon followed by being trussed up in a cold, wet sheet. In cases of double pneumonia the patient was given up for dead. Headaches he drove away unfortunately only temporarily with cream puffs and mild migraine powders, styes with ichthyol ointment and Goulard water, serious eye troubles with that oh-so-expensive distilled water mixed with an equal amount of boric acid lotion. If all that did not work then that priceless specialist, Professor Silex, had to be called in. He would turn a blind eye Dr Grunwald at a loss was his gain. For the fainting fits that were so popular at the time, or if you were only slightly dead, it was spirit of ammonia. How its pungent smell brought the tears to your eyes. Now I understood why the dear departed stank so: when they gave up the ghost they were still with us in spirit of ammonia. Scruffulous children were bathed in brine, and that stings! Warts were gobbled up by lunar caustic or charmed away. For boils and freckles there was yeast. For any kind of agitation, first there was a spoonful of sugared water, then a couple of sharp clips round the ear. If neither worked, you were made to stand in the corner then popped into bed, still quivering. The purpose of the Goulard water was unclear. If you claimed to have ringing in the ears you were sent straight away to stand in a corner and The Nice Doctor would whisper, with his hand in front of his mouth so you couldn't hear, `Little numbskull, artillery, chocolate.' If you didn't hear anything, then you had septic inflammation of the middle ear, which he treated by pouring boiling oil into it, though not before threatening to puncture your eardrum if necessary. Before we were taken to the proper dentist, Dr Walschock, who drilled, extracted and limped (his left leg was ten centimetres too short, but his right leg fortunately! ten centimetres longer), they rubbed oil of myrrh or tincture of idiotine on our swollen gums at home. Mother loved pulling the wrong tooth with passion and a piece of string. Instead of `piss' The Nice Doctor a supreme piss-artist himself said `urinate'; I heard this as `you're in it', and, having thus grasped how the bladder functioned, promptly wet my bed.
For or against a flat fee of 150 marks per annum The Nice Doctor inspected the whole family, servants included, from top to bottom, back and front, inside and out, once a fortnight. Like all antisemitic assimilated Jews he was an anti-vivisectionist. By way of a bonus, twice a year we were allowed to sit at the doctor's window at the corner of Kochstrasse and Friedrichstrasse to cheer His Majesty the Emperor and his seven sons (I know, I know, he only had five, but they looked much more numerous) as they rode back in triumph to the castle from the grand autumn or spring parades at the head of black-red-and-white betasselled Guards regiments.
That day our dear old Hippocrates fortified himself, as usual, with a glass of fiery Tokay accompanied by a Leibniz biscuit. At the same time he tried to reassure my agitated father, who was nervously chewing his cigar. Papa was trotting up and down the smoking room, reciting Schiller's `The Lay of the Bell': `Passion departs,/ But love must remain./ The flower fades,/ The fruit must sprout.' (In high school I was sent out of the class because this verse made me laugh.) The next lines `The man must go out/ Into a hostile world' our Aesculapius took personally Armed only with his stethoscope, he slipped into the labour room to diagnose acute pregnancy, for which the only cure was immediate delivery Without hesitation he peeled off his suede gloves (snug as a bug in a rug) to reveal his hairy hands. In those days every delivery was a life and death struggle at knife-point. The Nice Doctor rarely washed his hands; that discovery was only made a generation later by Dr Knox.
My final hour approached in fear and trembling. For the first time in my life I groaned Balzac's `Seulement Bianchon pourrait me sauver' `only Bianchon could save me'. I was propelled into this bloody life in quite an amateur fashion. By the time I had read the invitation over the exit, `Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate', `Abandon all hope, you who enter', it was too late to turn back. Until that moment I had blindly gone along with everything, utterly dependent on the usual Umbilical Cord Convention. Amazing how painless the severance was! Later, when my ideological umbilical cord was cut, that really did hurt! And now I had to fend for myself, a self-sufficient plaything of nature, of my nature. A man, a slave, a moral howler monkey, a degenerate beast of prey: homo sapiens. My eyes opened in amazement. Everything was upside down, blurred, out of focus, just as inside a camera: female movements in flesh-tints, in bright dreamy greys, in greyish blues, all without rhyme or reason. That I only discovered later: Mama!
Thus on 26 January 1897, a Tuesday morning I shall never forget, half-squashed, speechless, at the end of my tether, stark naked and sincerely yours, I was sent out into the fresh air. They thought I ought to breathe so they slapped me on the back. What I inhaled was the carbolic-enriched stench of lysol gutter-blended with the steam of fresh horse droppings the celebrated Berlin air:
Oh the balmy Berlin air, air, air, It's scent is something rare, rare, rare!
The bloodthirsty medieval midwife joyously trumpeted to the world at large: `A man!' Papa countered with the quotation, `Voila un homme!' which the doctor, clumsily pulling out the afterbirth, translated into Latin: `Ecce homo!' `Doesn't he just look like a little wrinkled old man,' Mama cooed with delight, adding, with her talent for getting proverbs wrong, `Just like a sheep in wolf's clothing'.
I was just happy that I was free of my mother and that my parents liked me. That, I knew, would not last long. Instead of feeling like a new man in a new fatherland, the Inferno, I was completely shattered. Was I perhaps a prince who could feel a pea through twelve mattresses? I decided not to show it. I, who was so determined to love all humanity, was repelled by this superfluous assembly. Can't one even be born in peace?
In the beginning everything is ugly. Beauty is something that has to be learned the hard way. Could that be the Sermon on the Mount of Venus that little Casanovalis had been dreaming of for nine months? They bathed me in boiling water, scrubbed me clean, plonked me on the changing table, oiled me, dusted me down with Pech's Patent Antiseptic Baby Powder ('Only the genuine article has the trade mark!'), smeared some rock-hard Lazaar's zinc ointment over my delicate baby's bottom, wrapped me up too tightly in my swaddling clothes and popped me into the white iron cradle: art nouveau hygiene.
Moaning softly, my birth trauma hardly behind me, I sought refuge in dreams from the new objectivity that was creeping up on me: through angst and trauma to Ångström. Alone at last, all all alone, I tried to kick and scream myself to sleep, to that thousand-year sleep from which I have never quite awakened: through all the wonderfully horrible stations of a cosmopolitan life, to and fro through languages, countries, wars, women, labyrinths, adventures, books, beauty, crap, wisdom, stupidity, truths, lies, keyholes à voir n'est-ce pas l'avoir? Savoir? Like Lynceus in Faust, `Born to see, employed to watch', a blind voyeur, a deaf eavesdropper: eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves. Photographe par excellence: veni, I came; vidi, I saw; I never conquered. My defeat coincided with the various ends of the world.
Whooping with joy, Papa came galloping in from the smoking room to disturb my first rest and to place a sloppy kiss on the forehead of his heir now apparent. He wheezed an admiring `Shnowtisayowton!' It was supposed to be Greek, with a Lower Saxony accent. In those days every town spoke its own Greek the purest was spoken in Lehrte near Hanover. My father suffered an inferiority complex from the fact that he spoke no Greek at all. Shnowtisayowton was supposed to mean `Know thyself'. To hear those words was to heed them, so I touched my body to get the feel of it. Just as Adam knew his Eve, I came to know my little soul, my fate: condemned to death. Why, why, why? And, above all, when? Long before the days of Freud and Fraud, of Jung and Old, I had started my own relentless process of self-anal-assess, sine ira et studio: Blumenfeld Studio Inc., 222, Central Park South, New York NY 10019. What I wanted was to live, to infect the world with my spirit. My situation was already starting to get precarious.
Pour tuer le temps I looked for epitaphs for my black marble catafalque. Shakespeare's farewell to life's tempest:
Now my Charmes are all ore-throwne and what strength I have's mine owne which is most faint ... ... Now I want Spirits to enforce: Art to inchant, and my ending is despaire, Unlesse ...
or Pascal's `Les hommes sont si néessairement fous, que ce serait fou par un autre tour de folie de n'être pas fou!' or Voltaire's `écrlinf écraser l'Infâme!' Crush the vile thing! In vain I tried to shake myself free from my mother tongue.
I was driven by an encyclopaedic mania: since I could not know everything, I wanted to know about everything. Blumenfeld's own personal Mein Kampf: should I search for truth à la Montaigne, Voltaire, Rousseau, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and expose fraud, or, following my own miracle-rabbi tendency towards mysticism and mystification, become a charlatan, illusionist, magician, medicine-man and card-sharp like Cagliostro, Casanova, St Simon, Houdini?
While Oscar Wilde was in Reading Gaol composing his bitter love-letter (castrated by his publisher to De Profundis) to his Bosie, while Elisabeth Förster Nietzsche and Isabelle Rimbaud, like the good sisters they were, were busy adulterating the unpublished manuscripts of their brothers who had escaped into madness (the age of adultery, in any sense of the word) I, à la recherche de l'absolu, de l'absolution, entered that public convenience, the World (please adjust your dress before leaving) and became engrossed in my cardinal problem: isolation in the cosmos. A lonely star in the seemingly overpopulated sky I sank my teeth into myself and into my little fingernails that were still so appetizing.
Time is pressing. I have to capture all this end-of-the-world stuff in words for posterity if any The course of history = the course of disease = the fabrication of legends = a web of lies from which no fly can escape.
`Tout finit par les commencements.'
5 Nomina sunt omina
Without my consent they named me after a friend of the family, a manufacturer of mourning hats. That pushy smoothy Erwin Mühlberg, had, as I was forever being told, been top of every class at the Graues Kloster, a rival school. Because of that model pupil, I have been condemned for life to the embarrassing name of Erwin (how earnest!). The fact that, in honour of grandfather Blumenfeld, I was also baptised Moses (Mausche) was kept secret from me and the world. On the other hand the Blessed Erwin of Steinbach, the architect of Strasbourg cathedral, seems to have been in part responsible for my excessive interest in cathedrals, organs, church windows, rosettes, wafers, hosts, incense, holy water, pets-de-nonne, martyrs, relics, prayer wheels, rosaries, confessionals, rude screens and assorted stools, sarabandes and toccatas with or without fugues (Gothic, Fizzygothic, Doric, Ionic, Ironic), baroque passacaglias, pavanes and similar cadaveresque flummery, folderols, gewgaws and mumbo-jumbo.
My birth had taken place according to plan under a favourable horoscope (Aquarius, the Water Bearer) on the eve of the Kaiser's birthday I can thank my lucky stars I wasn't called Wilhelm. Wilhelm II, by the grace of God Emperor in Germany and King of Prussia (those ins and ofs were questions of provincial protocol) ruled absolutely everything, including my youth. A moustachioed Majesty (Court barber Haby marketed his patent moustache-trainer under the name `Mission Accomplished') with the permanent expression of a child in a huff. In those days the whole world was in a permanent huff. A ham with a passion for dressing up, a partial cripple with the historic mission of brandishing his gilded field marshal's baton and leading the world towards the glorious days of Herr Hitler: mission accomplished!
My mother, Frau Emma, née Cohn, was born on 11 December 1869 in Stettin, Pomerania (as it then was; after Herr Hitler's glorious days it had a consonant transplant and became Szczecin, Poland). She was very narrowly built: rachitic spinal scrofulosis, the English disease. The Nice Doctor prescribed Bleuel's iron pills and rusty ship's nails washed down with red wine and followed by brinebaths: for an iron constitution, you need blood and iron. The ABC of vitamins was still a thing of the future.
Because of her outstanding flatchestedness (look for the brooch, that's the front) a contract was signed with the `Professional Wet Nurse Agency' on Belle Alliance Square a good five months before I came into the world. For a deposit of fifteen marks they undertook to have a `good milker' from the Spree Woods on call from January 1897. After a fruitless search for milk on mama's frontage, I yelled, `Je meurs de faim auprès de la fontaine', and was plugged in to a wet nurse's somewhat overblown breast. More content, less form. Aluminium acetate mixed with stout milk! I have only retained one word of my wet nurse's gin-and-slavonic mother tongue, `Oblüschmerüsch' meaning not `my little bundle of joy' but `kiss my arse'.
Not even while performing the most difficult manoeuvres during labour would Mama condescend to remove her pince-nez on its dainty gold chain from her bright red nose with its bluish-white powder. From the very beginning this highly intelligent, highly interested, highly intellectual lady of high standing and a most excellent olfactory organ did all she could to guard me from the dangers of a mother complex. I never saw her in the altogether, not even through the keyhole, thank God. She hardly had a body at all and attached no importance to it. Instead of becoming a mama's boy I did deep-sea diving investigations into her underwear in the laundry basket and became a knicker fetishist. Unfortunately women's knickers have lost their mystery. Yesterday's perversion is today's norm. As Seneca said not long ago, `Quae fuerant vitiae, mores sunt'.
In spite of a constantly mentioned dowry of 100,000 `emmies' ('m' for mark), which in 1893 had marked my mother down (also called Emmie, which could lead to confusion) as a fine catch, my parents' marriage was never presented as a financial transaction but as a marriage of two souls. Mother was not exactly athletic. She did have a tennis racket and two balls, but she could neither serve nor return. Her only sport consisted of weekly visits to the poor. She descended upon them armed with a wicker basket containing a quarter bottle of red wine, a quarter of a boiling fowl and half a cake of soap tastefully wrapped in an acrid-smelling superannuated dishcloth. All the well-to-do ladies of my youth soothed their sentimental consciences with such charitable activities. It was the proper thing to do, absolutely comme il faut, my dear.
She was also a stickler for principles. No one I knew could stickle as she could. As a matter of principle, she was for the ultra-modern three-child-system (I was furious about having to serve as one-third evidence for it), for progressive Pee-eff-aitch (Pestalozzi-Fröbel House) education by means of games and puzzles. Even more as a matter of principle she was against `free love' and its fatal consequences. With an unshakeable belief in education through proverbs she taught us, always with a touch of schadenfreude:
Hoist with his own petard! The way to Hell is paved with good intentions, the Devil finds work for idle hands and your sins will find you out. Look before you leap, weeds want no sowing, learn from your mistakes and you'll have the last laugh on the other side of your face, people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. The early worm makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise, time is money, silence is golden, all that glitters is not as good as gold, and a fool and his money talks, put your money where your mouth is, wash your mouth out, don't count your chickens and never put off till tomorrow is another day, poverty is no disgrace and hard work never did no one no harm. How to get rich quick? Honesty is the best Polly, see, but virtue is its own reward and charity begins at home. One swallow doesn't make a summer pudding, one man's meat is another man's poisson, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, hunger is the best sauce. Quality's what counts, count the cost, count yourself lucky, know yourself, to each his own, on your own head be it if the cap fits, fit to bust, fit and well, in sickness and in health, maladie est sans T, mais santén'est pas sans T, the flesh is weak but the spirit is willing to make allowances, a monthly allowance, the child is father of the man, you can't teach an old dog new tricks and only time will tell, nothing ventured, nothing gained, fortune favours the brave, where there's a will there's a way, more haste less speed, patience is a virtue and they also serve who only stand and wait till the cows come home sweet home, your time is up, don't blow your own trumpet, handsome is as handsome does and when in Rome do as you would be done by (categorical imperative for older children), a man's a man for all that, the lady doth protest too much, qui s'excuse s'accuse (always in reproachful tones), children should be seen and not heard, spare the rod and spoil the child, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, boys will be boys, all for one and one for all, God bless us all's well that ends well, and so on and so forth.
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