Updated: Nov 16
Mainebocher Corset - photo by Horst P Horst
...The model's name is recorded as 'Madame Bernon'. Little is known of her - but she sat for what must be one of the most famous images in the world of fashion photography: the 'Mainbocher Corset' The photograph was by Horst - a German photographer who had made his name with Vogue magazine in Paris before World War Two. This was the last picture he took before fleeing the city and the advancing forces of Nazi Germany. He would make a new life in America-
“I went back to the house, packed my bags and caught the seven o’clock train to Le Havre to board the S.S. Normandie. I knew that life would be completely different now. I had found a family in Paris and a way of life. The clothes, the books, the apartment, all was left behind. The photograph is peculiar – for me it is the essence of that moment. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”
It was August 15th 1939 when Horst checked his focus, loaded his sheet film into the camera and concentrated on Madame Bernon and her corset.
...Knowing that the 'Mainbocher Corset' would be the last photograph Horst would take before fleeing his beloved Paris, it's hard not to think that his mood informed the lighting of his subject with some kind of a sense of dark foreboding... And maybe Madame Bernon, with her back to the lens, was hanging her head in sorrow for the last moments of peace on the eve of war. I'm being a bit fanciful - but one thing is for sure, this photograph is both artistically outstanding and technically superb.
Only a large format camera can produce this unique balance of dynamic range and resolving power. The quality of imagery from a 10x8 view camera - and to an only slightly lesser extent with the smaller 4x5 view camera is extraordinary.
Horst was a master of working with the 10x8 camera. He is celebrated not only for his expertise behind the lens, but also for his commitment as an artist to meticulously curating every detail in his exquisite artful imagery. After the move to the USA, he would continue to shoot for Vogue for decades - famed for an almost fanatical attention to detail and a highly stylised aesthetic.
Horst in New York with model Lisa Fonssagrives
Horst - photo for American Vogue, May 15th 1941
If you have ever been curious about just what can be produced by a large format camera, the work of Horst is a pretty good place to start. His technique is immaculate and his work - especially with his favourite model, Lisa Fonssagrives, is truly inspiring.
Lisa in 1940
I'm afraid an image on a computer screen falls far short of seeing Horst's original prints...To appreciate the true quality of these images you will have to seek out originals from one of the frequent exhibitions of his work - and the same could be said for the work of those other 'Large Format Greats' Richard Avedon and Irving Penn.
...But then again, if you are perhaps already teetering on the edge of jumping into large format photography, you shouldn't need too much persuading - so why don't you just go ahead, throw all caution to the wind - and make that leap into the unknown!
You will be richly rewarded - especially if you can find the means (or somebody skilled enough) to make proper prints of your work.
The experience of using a large format camera - whether it is a 10x8 or 4x5 size is a unique and richly rewarding experience. The approach at first, seems almost monastic. You work in silence, under the shroud of darkness provided by the dark cloth as you frame and then focus the image - an image that appears projected upside-down on the ground glass focussing screen at the back of the camera.
And this is where one of the distinct advantages of using a large format view camera comes into play... Because the image is viewed upside down, composition is the first thing we are encouraged to think about. A student learns in art school that the best way to judge the compositional strength of an image is to appraise it upside down... And the same applies to photography.
We have that great big viewing screen to look at; the whole of the image is there to appraise in minute detail. This is a camera that you work with at your own pace and with great precision... As long as you don't exhaust your sitter in the meantime! When I interviewed Lisa Fonssagrives she vividly remembered the long days with Horst - 'It would take hours and hours; it was soooo complicated!'
But the large format camera doesn't have to be a 'cathedral on a tripod'. It can also be a camera of the 'decisive moment'; another photographer, the little-known but hugely talented O. Winston Link, took the large format in a completely different direction to Horst's highly considered work.
Armed with a huge bank of flashbulbs, cameras and a long suffering and frequently very brave assistant, Winston set about immortalising the last, dying days of steam on the Norfolk and Western railroad.
Link knew that the real drama of steam came with the night. Daylight would be spent with his assistant, laying out huge arrays of flashbulbs along the track, high across buildings and through sidings. Locals would often be drafted in to people Winston's elaborate tableaux. At nightfall, all would freeze in anticipation as the high lonesome sound of a train echoed across the landscape; followed by the sound of the train's horn and the fast growing glare of its headlight-
Winston remembers - "Since I could only see the headlight of the locomotive in total darkness, I did not know until the flash was fired that I had captured this prize, Class A engine with beautiful smoke and all of it in range!"
Winston had triggered the banks of flashbulbs set up by himself and his assistant, capturing in an instant - and decisive moment - a trains passing; freezing forever the great spectacle of the giants of steam.
By the early sixties, the N&W had become a diesel railroad but by then, Link had amassed a collection of over 2,000 images - capturing forever the final days of America's last steam railroad.
Seek his images out - they are truly extraordinary.
I offer you the work of O Winston Link and by (extreme) contrast Horst to make the point that pretty much the only limitations you have with a view camera are your own... They produce the loveliest quality imaginable.
Richard Avedon took one of my favourite images with a 10x8 - 'Dovima with Elephants'. Like the Mainbocher Corset, this photograph endures as one of the defining images of world fashion photography.
Her real name was Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba - DOVIMA. Avedon called her, “the most remarkable and unconventional beauty of her time.” Dovima was equally enthusiastic about the photographer: “We became like mental Siamese twins, with me knowing what he wanted before he explained it. He asked me to do extraordinary things, but I always knew I was going to be part of a great picture.”
Dovima would reach the heights of fame as the highest paid model of the 50s before fading into obscurity. When Horst started working with Dovima, Madame Bernon - his model for 'The Mainbocher Corset' had already suffered this fate.
By the late 50s, Dovima knew her days as a top model were numbered.
Dovima in a 10x8 taken by Horst.
As the ‘60s swung into fashion, Dovima realised her time in front of the camera had come to an end. “I didn’t want to wait till the camera turned cruel,”
Dovima tried acting. She appeared as a model in Funny Face, in which Fred Astaire played an Avedon-inspired fashion photographer. Then she tried a career as an agent. But, by the 1970s, Dovima found herself back with her parents, who had moved from New York to Florida.
And by the 1980s, Dovima was working at the Two Guys pizza parlour in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Tucked away on a back wall was the picture Avedon had taken of her with the elephants. Sometimes she would show it to a customer. None would believe it was her.
All but forgotten, Dovima, the first supermodel, passed away at the age of 62 in May 1990.
Dovima at the height of her fame
A great deal of photography is about nostalgia - looking back on those moments that we chanced to freeze with the camera as time marches relentlessly on.
For me, one of the best things about shooting on large format rather than only shooting roll upon roll of 35mm film (which is then buried in negative files of thousands of images) is that with large format you end up with just a few hundred negatives. And each of those negs can be held up to the light in a moment and then far more easily appraised than squinting through a magnifying glass at frame after frame of 35mm film.
We have just taken into stock a pretty fabulous range of large format cameras and lenses. Take a look - and do call us if you need any advice.
... For us that would like to leave behind at least a few select images shot in the wonderful unbeatable resolution of the large format medium, view cameras are the best to be had.
Large format is the 'forever format' because it will never be bettered by digital...
Film has already proven to be a medium that, with the right storage, will last indefinitely. And the technology to retrieve an image from a negative will always exist... I do wonder how long digital images on a drive will be retrievable. Will a drive still be working 150 years from now?
For Horst it was not just Madame Berton that was forgotten. Not long before he died in 1999, aged 93, he recalled the 'Mainbocher Corset': “I don’t know how I did it. I couldn’t repeat it. It was created by emotion…”
As indeed, are all great photographs. Because, as they say - without emotion, photography is just chemistry.
blog copyright November 2023 Matthew Whiteman
camera images copyright The Latent Image
historic photographic images strictly copyright of their respective estates