Director of Fashion Exhibitions Rafael Gomes, photographed by Isadora Pennington

Inside the gallery of the SCAD FASH museum, an incredible array of large photographs line the dark walls. This exhibition, Essence of the Times, showcases over 80 works by the internationally renowned late fashion photographer Horst P. Horst that spanned his career from the 1930s through the 1990s. 

Originally born in Germany in 1906, Horst graduated from college and found his way to Paris where he studied under famed architect Le Corbusier. In 1930 Horst met, befriended, and started a relationship with Vogue photographer Baron George Hoyningen-Huene. He would occasionally pose for Hoyningen-Huene and assisted him on shoots. Together, the pair traveled to England and met Cecil Beaton, one of the photographers who worked with British Vogue. 

Horst P. Horst, Electric Beauty, 1939

Inspired, he began an association with Vogue and published his first full-page ad for a perfume company later that year. The first gallery exhibition of his works opened at La Plume d’Or in Paris in 1932 and the reception quickly elevated him to a position of fame and esteem. His background in architecture and passion for arts, in particular surrealism, helped to elevate his work from purely commercial to true arts. Salvador Dali was one of Horst’s closest friends, and his influence can be seen in some of the portraits from those years. When Huene retired, Horst became the Photographer in Chief at Vogue in 1935.

Horst found success in Paris, working in a shared multi-story studio and production house along the Champs-Elysées, until the Nazi invasion forced him to flee the country. It was not safe for him to stay in Europe as a gay man. In 1939 he took one last photograph at the end of a shoot before packing up his bags and catching one of the very last ships leaving for America. Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher shows the model in the midst of undressing when the news broke that the Nazis were invading the city, and she began to cry into the crook of her arm. The result is haunting and beautiful. 

Horst P. Horst, Corset by Detolle for Mainbocher, 1939

“This is my favorite, the story of leaving France, he really took the last boat coming out of Paris,” said Director of Fashion Exhibitions Rafael Gomes. ”It’s such a beautiful story. He used this prop here so many times and even brought it to America with him. It is touching, it was his goodbye to France.” 

When he made it to America he changed his name from Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann to Horst P. Horst in order to evade capture and distance himself from his German heritage. He settled into New York City and met Coco Chanel who he greatly admired and began photographing her work which he continued for the next three decades. Horst quickly became one of the photographers of the stars.

This exhibition is particularly important not only because of his artistic talents but also because these works teach viewers about the historical events that took place during his career. One visible change is the switch from black and white to color, while other details might be harder to notice. During WWII, when Americans were restricted to certain fabrics and details in order to preserve efforts to outfit soldiers in the field, Horst’s works reflected those rules in his photographs. You can often also find red, white, and blue peppered into his pieces from the wartime period of his work.

“For the students, this exhibition is very important because we are not teaching fashion or photography history– we are teaching history in general. They have the chance to learn so much about composition, and it’s also such a great example of how you have to adapt with the times to be still in your game. He kept working all these years, he was always updating and capturing what was going around in the time. This is a great inspiration for the students and a big motivator to create and experiment,” explained Gomes. 

SCAD FASH is a teaching museum, and with all things they endeavor to curate exhibitions that tie in to the lessons the students are learning in their classrooms. Visitors to this exhibition will find that these works are moving and captivating. An excellent use of composition which relied on his background in architecture led to thoughtful pieces that use shadow, light, and angles to not only sell products but also entice the viewer to stop and stare for a while.

Visitors can expect to see icons of fashion, film, and high society in Horst’s photos including Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Diane von Furstenberg, Elsa Perretti, Vivien Leigh, Marlene Dietrich, Salvador Dalí, Gloria Vanderbilt, Iman, Patrick Kelly, Yves Saint Laurent, Halston, Karl Lagerfeld, and Diana Vreeland. The exhibition is on display through April 16, 2023.

Isadora Pennington is a freelance writer and photographer based in Atlanta. She is the editor of Sketchbook by Rough Draft, a weekly Arts newsletter.