These days, when you think of mid-20th century fashion photography two names spring to mind: Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. Their work is now in the permanent collections of major museums and art galleries around the world, the subject of regular retrospectives and highly prized by collectors – a single print can fetch tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction, and rising.
But travel back in time to the 1940s and 1950s and their contemporaries may well have been bewildered at the attention garnered by Penn and Avedon given that they were just two of a host of photographers working for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and the other fashion magazines of the era.
There’s Lillian Bassman, who blurs and bleaches her prints in the darkroom to produce magical, high-contrast images of sylph-like models. Or Clifford Coffin, who pioneers the use of the ring-flash to dramatize his models and outline them with shadow. The work of others is perhaps less distinctive but is not just technically brilliant but totally conveys the zeitgeist – think Louise Dahl-Wolfe, John Rawlings, Gleb Derujinsky…
This is the era of European haute couture, dominated by the likes of Christan Dior, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, Jacques Fath and Pierre Balmain. And of Paris as the almost mythical centre of the fashion universe, immortalized in Funny Face. But while Paris grabs the fashion headlines, Europe is in a sorry state, struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II. In the US, by contrast, fortunes continue to be made, the standard of living to rise and Hollywood to cement its status as a fashion capital of the world.
In the Midwest, Marshall Field & Company of Chicago lead a host of merchants serving the newly rich and those with aspirations in that direction. Middle Americans too far away to drop by are served by the city’s major catalogue retailers – Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward. And mid-20th century Chicago has its own fashion photographer too. His name is Kenneth Heilbron.
A charmed life
Kenneth is the second son of a prosperous millinery importer. In 1926, age 23, he is sent by his father to Paris, the city of not just of Coco Chanel, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou but of Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Josephine Baker and the Ballets Russes. He returns to Chicago with his new wife, Mildred Anderson, five years later. Years later, he recalls the Great Depression as a thing that happened to other people, never to the friends in his circle.
Anyway, he takes up photography as a means of supplementing the family income, and his talent and connections ensure success. He is chosen as a Chicago bureau photographer for Life, Time and Fortune magazines in the 1930s–40s. In 1938 he becomes the first instructor of photography at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Expanding into advertising and fashion photography, around the beginning of World War II the Heilbron home and studio move to the building that will later become famous as Hugh Hefner’s residence and office –the Isham mansion on State Street, where Kenneth stages portrait sittings in the grand ballroom. Although he hires laboratory assistants, he alone operates his cameras and makes prints over which he exercises absolute control.
The fashion and advertising shoots are great money-spinners and enable the Heilbrons to move to a 22-room townhouse on Wells Street in Chicago’s Old Town neighbourhood. The coach house becomes Kenneth’s photo lab, separated from his home by a private garden centred on a small lily pond. And the house itself begins to fill with American folk art, antique furniture and whole families of exotic cats, of which he took many, many photos.
Kenneth himself is quite a dandy (echoes of Norman Parkinson here). Often he dresses in custom-made Parisian clothes, and for decades, his signature look includes an ascot (a cravat) and a beret.
In 1985, the year of a retrospective at the Art Institute, the Heilbrons move to Galena, where he continues to photograph neighbours and officials. He declares himself officially retired from active picture making in 1994, three years before his death.
A man of his time
It is for his fashion photos that Kenneth features on Aenigma. His biggest client in that area seems to have been Marshall Fields, but his work also appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times (including an article about Wilhelmina) and no doubt many other magazines.
It is absolutely of its time. Like his contemporaries, Heilbron goes for naturalistic shots, often taken on location. There are some fabulous settings in Chicago – the Art Institute, the glazed upper deck of the original Equitable Building still under construction, on the street – and also in Paris.
Looking at the images here, it’s clear that Heilbron had a great eye for composition (in 1939 he published a book on Composition for the Amateur), an ability to put his models at ease and the technique to capture the studied elegance of the times. He was also willing to spend hours in the darkroom coaxing subtle details into a single image he wanted to preserve. This helps to explain why many of his pictures exist as unique vintage prints.
As with Penn and Avedon, fashion was just one aspect of Heilbron’s work and he looked beyond it for less glamorous subject matter. But he didn’t go to the dark places that Avedon explored, nor did he pursue an aesthetic with the uncompromising rigour of Penn. Nevertheless, these days if he is known at all, Heilbron is admired above all for the photos he took from the late 1930s through the 1940s of Ringling Brothers Circus life and performers – shots which are both intimate and penetrating.
And those circus images bring to mind Avedon’s shoot with Dovima at the Cirque d’Hiver. Asked why he never tried to pose a model in a real circus, Heilbron replied that his clients would have found the concept unacceptable. He was hired to produce images of luxurious fantasy; however intriguing it might be, the backyard of the circus was not fashionable.