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Horst P. Horst Mainboucher corset

German-born photographer Horst P. Horst was one of the pre-eminent fashion photographers of the twentieth century. Renowned for his complex use of studio lighting, elegant sets and formal compositions, Horst worked closely with his models, art directors, fashion editors, studio assistants and technicians to create images of deceptive simplicity and impeccable style. Mainboucher corset, 1939, is his most celebrated image of the prewar period and is an icon of twentieth-century fashion photography.

Horst was born in Germany in 1906. As a young man he studied architecture and in 1930 moved to Paris where he apprenticed to the studio of the famous modernist architect Le Corbusier. That same year Horst met George Hoyningen-Huene, a successful, internationally renowned fashion photographer, and began to work as his model and darkroom assistant. This led to Horst to abandon a potential career in architecture in favour of photography. In 1931 he published his first photograph in French Vogue, it was the beginning of a lucrative and successful partnership. During the 1930s Horst photographed the collections of the leading fashion houses in Paris including: Chanel, Schiaparelli, Lanvin, Jean Patou, Worth, Vionnet and Lelong, many of these images graced the pages of the influential magazine. Horst continued to photograph for French Vogue until 1939 when he left Paris at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Mainboucher corset shows his model posed with her back towards the camera, revealing the details of the intricately laced ribbons and silken fabric of the corset. Horst’s signature lighting technique, employing deep shadows and luminous highlights, emphasises the model’s finely muscled form, repositioning her from the role of thoroughly modern woman to that of living ‘classical’ sculpture. His setting for this photograph is elegantly simple, a plain marble balustrade bisecting the image which effectively juxtaposes cool stone and warm flesh. In this sensual image the model is self-contained, her gaze is averted from the viewer, and the partially laced ribbons of her corset flow in tangled skeins over the edge of the balustrade. Horst once noted, ‘My best pictures always have a little mess’. In this photograph his artful ‘mess’ is the perfect counterpoint to the seeming perfection of both model and garment

In a dramatic turn of events, after completing this photo shoot, Horst left his Paris studio, returned home to pack his bags, and departed immediately for Le Havre to board a ship to New York. Once in America he sought to re-establish himself as a fashion photographer, however, it was not until the postwar period that Horst was able to return to working at the high end of fashion photography as a leading contributor to US Vogue.

Susan van Wyk, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2017)