Although I take many pictures and receive a bunch of “Likes” on Instagram, I could never be a real photographer because I would never be able to master the nuances and mechanics required for a 35mm camera and darkroom, and that’s because I am an idiot. Thankfully, because of digital photography and my trusty iPhone 6, I am now able to take photographs that are not out of focus or without some interest. Remember taking your film for processing and paying $12 to discover that only five of your 24 photos had turned out and one of those was of your thumb?
In the history of 20th century fashion and portrait photography, Horst P. Horst (1906 – 1999) has a contribution that is artistically significant and long-lasting. He had an active career from 1931 to 1991. He would become so legendary that like only a few other Gay Icons such as Cher, Madonna, and Liberace; he is known by just a single word name. Horst’s work is the epitome of elegance and effortless glamour.
In 1930, Horst met Vogue photographer Baron George Hoyningen-Huene, a Russian, and Horst became his photographic assistant, model and lover. With blond hair and a trim, muscular body, Horst was an ideal male model. He traveled to England with the Baron where they visited with fanous photographer Cecil Beaton, who was working for British Vogue. In 1931, Horst began his own association with Vogue. His first photograph in French Vogue was published that year.
Horst had his first show of photographs at La Plume d’Or in Paris in 1932. It was reviewed by gay writer Janet Flanner in The New Yorker and Horst was made instantly famous. Horst shot a portrait of Bette Davis the same year, the first in a long series of celebrities he would photograph during his lifetime. In 1932 alone he shot: Noël Coward, The Lunts, Cole Porter, and Elsa Schiaparelli.
Horst met Coco Chanel in NYC in 1937. Chanel:
“Horst was the queen of the whole thing.”
He would go on to photograph Chanel’s creations for the next 30 years.
After they moved to Hollywood, Hoyningen-Heune became obsessively jealous over Horst’s success which resulted in an end to their relationship. With the Baron out of the picture, Horst began an affair with Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. When that relationship fizzled, Horst hooked-up with Valentine Lawford, a British diplomat, in 1938 and they lived openly as a couple until Lawford’s passing in 1991. The couple adopted and raised a son, Richard J. Horst, together. This was in the 1930s!
Horst was born as Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann, in Germany. In 1941, Horst applied for U.S. citizenship and he soon joined the Army. He became an Army photographer, with much of his work printed in the Armed Forces’ magazine Belvoir Castle. In 1945 he photographed President Harry S. Truman, and they became fast friends. Horst photographed Truman’s wife Bess and then shot every First Lady of the post-war period, always at the invitation of The White House. although I doubt he could justice to our current First Lady’s inappropriateness.
In the 1960s, encouraged by Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, Horst began a series of photos of beautiful high society types: Gloria Guinness, Consuelo Vanderbilt, Marella Agnelli, Princess Helen of Greece, American princess Lee Radziwill, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Doris Duke, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. They were collected in a book with text written by Lawford.
When Vreeland left Vogue in 1971, Horst remained highly prolific and his appetite to shoot a range of subjects and locations never waned. Jerry Hall in Barbados; Duran Duran in London; Tom Wolfe, youngBrooke Shields and Roy Lichtenstein in NYC, they all posed for him. He shot the costumes of the New York City Ballet.
After the death of Hoyningen-Huene and Chanel, Horst worked increasingly for Vogue‘s sister publication, House & Garden, touring Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Central America shooting homes and interiors. Although he continued to shoot for Vogue and have his work published in the Italian, French and British editions, the later part of his life was dedicated to writing books and exhibiting his photography around the world.
Horst’s last commercial work was shot for British Vogue in 1991. He died eight years later at his home in Palm Beach. He was 93 years old when his shutter closed for good.
Horst’s career reached Old Master status when the most famous person on the planet, Madonna, created her celebrated hymn to classic fashion photography with her monster single Vogue in 1990. In the video directed by David Fincher, she poses in a recreation of Horst’s most iconic fashion image, a model seen from behind, wearing a partially tied, back-laced corset made by Detolle.
Horst knew and photographed most of the major figures of the 20th century and lived a life creating beauty while fiercely, openly gay. That is a life well lived.
You might have a pleasant morning exploring his photographs on the Horst Foundation website.
Horst (2018) a documentary by Mark Trottenberg is streaming on Amazon.