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Horst: Transcending the ages through colour photography

Horst Paul Bohrmann’s (Horst P. Horst) work has become recognized worldwide as some of the most forward-thinking endeavours in photography, and he is widely considered one of the most prolific fashion photographers of all time. Despite this recognition, not much is known about the man behind the lens. The superbly designed Horst: Photographer of Style exhibition, held at the McCord Museum, provides a spectacular glimpse into the wondrous transition from black and white to colour photography, while also shining light on the shadows of this enigmatic individual as well.

Born in 20th century Germany, Horst moved to Paris to pursue a career in architecture with Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. But upon meeting the ‘star-photographer’ of French Vogue, Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, he veered off into what became his absolute passion: Photography. This is where the exhibit begins.

The exhibit begins in a darkly lit room with the letters “H O R S T” in large, white capital letters printed in 3-D over a dark grey wall alongside a biography of Horst’s early life. A multitude of his black and white photographs of beautiful women taken during the 1930s for a Vogue cover are on the walls. The centre of the room is occupied by a floor-to-ceiling glass case showcasing six designer dresses worn by some of the models in the photographs. These images, taken in the 1930s, were some of the first high-fashion photographs ever taken, and appear immaculate from lighting to shadowing to poses.

The second part of the exhibit showcases Horst’s Surrealist work, also from the 1930s, with a handful of stunning black and white photos featuring women in bizarre positions, posing with sharp-edged, cube-based inanimate objects. In this part of the exhibit the viewer is introduced to Horst’s friendship with fellow artist Salvador Dalí—an artist who clearly influenced and inspired some of Horst’s more abstract work. Additionally, Horst’s work-life division becomes increasingly clear. This separation is enhanced by the exhibition’s inclusion of four Dalí-esque still lifes and dozens of Horst’s sketches cleverly compiled onto an iPad, which viewers can flick through at their own pleasure.

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The exhibit continues with a short black and white film that documents Horst at work, mid photo shoot. Afterwards the exhibit opens into a stark-white and high-ceiling gallery that dazzles with the vivid colours and bright clothes of the aforementioned Vogue covers. This stark contrast between this section of the gallery and the more dimmed atmosphere of the preceding sections brilliantly displays Horst’s transition to colour photography and the dazzling effects that the transition had on Horst’s work.

The initial black and white photos, the introduction of improved technology in the 1940s via the short film, and finally the incorporation of colour all blend together superbly and transport the viewer through time. In reality, a large majority of the brightly dazzling colour photos in the ‘modern’ part of the exhibit are from the 1930s, thus either emerging at the same time of or preceding some of the faded black and white photography at the beginning of the exhibit. Highlighting the impact that colour can have on photography in such a seemingly anachronistic way is the most interesting takeaway from this exhibit. With colour, the world can instantly appear more glamorous and modern, and conversely reveal how incorrect society’s romanticized and re-imagined visions of the past are. The exhibit brilliantly enhances this realization by transitioning from brightly coloured magazine covers into subdued–albeit nude–black and white photos that Horst took in the 1950s, a clever testament to the rather mind-shifting experience that this exhibition encapsulates.

Whether or not the exhibit was designed to foster this rather existential questioning, it is nevertheless a splendid conclusion to the show. Horst: Photographer of Style is an incredibly well thought-out and striking exhibit that showcases not only Horst’s own growth, but that of photography and art as well.

Horst: Photographer of Style is being presented at the McCord Museum (690 Sherbrooke Street West) until Sunday, August 23. Admission is $8.50.

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