Depth of Field, volume 5, no 1 (December 2014)Maartje van den Heuvel: Reserved in Public but Extravagant in Domestic Circles: Fashion Photography from 1913 onward by Portrait Studio Merkelbach

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Fashion photographs for shop windows: indecent exposure?

Could fashion houses possibly have used photographs in their storefront windows in the same large formats that were employed by Merkelbach – varying from 24 x 18 cm to 50 x 40 cm – in order to give the passer-by a more vivid impression of their clothing on display? Merkelbach himself placed photos in his shop window on the Leidseplein to promote his portrait practice.[31] A photograph by Bernard Eilers from around 1921 shows a framed image in a Hirsch display window. Unfortunately, it cannot be determined whether this is a drawing, print or photo. If photographs were used in such a manner in storefront windows, they were certainly not portraits of random members of Hirsch & Cie's clientele. It was regarded as unseemly for a lady of social standing to model and promote clothing publicly. 'For that, there were artist's models and [...] girls off the street,' as Mies Merkelbach explained, who, incidentally, did not share the same opinion herself.[32] This was the case not only in The Netherlands, but in the second decade of the previous century as well in Paris and New York, where the model Lillian Farly experienced the same sentiment.[33] Furthermore, some shopkeepers at the time were known to regularly place photos of customers in their shop windows that were seriously in arrears. This was one additional reason why private individuals would not have wished to be exposed in this context.[34]

Merkelbach avoided objections to 'indecent exposure' of this nature on the part of private individuals, in part by working with professional live mannequins employed by Hirsch & Cie. From the year that that he first opened his photo studio, we find records of a 'Miss' Barends from Hirsch clothing posing for photos.[35] Beginning in the 1920s, Merkelbach regularly worked together with Aletta (or 'Letty') van Wijk, as seen in photos from 1924. (Figs. 10, 11) With Miss Barends, one can see how the compositions, image construction with backgrounds, and scenic props are all derived from the static formulas of portrait painting.[36] The model's turned pose – in other cases with the hips slightly bent and arms raised in order to show off the body most favorably – can be traced back to those found in fashion drawing.[37] In a number of studies with Letty van Wijk, in which Merkelbach approaches the model more closely by depicting her half-length, it would appear he arrives at a formula that is more free and intimate. Here the distinction with portrait studies becomes incredibly thin. Moreover, Letty's transparent clothing raises the issue of whether these photos were also intended for public consumption. (Fig. 12)

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Fig. 10. Studio Merkelbach, Letty van Wijk, 1924, Jos-Pé colour process, 25,4 x 21,9 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-61.1022.

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Fig. 11. Studio Merkelbach, Letty van Wijk, 1924, carbon print, 60,0 x 49,4 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-71.280.

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Fig. 12. Studio Merkelbach, Letty van Wijk, 1924, glass negative, Amsterdam City Archives, inv. no. 010164020741.

In addition to professional models, we also find actresses posing in Merkelbach's fashion photos. The performance aspect of their profession allowed the public display of such fashion photos. In general, the theatre world was an important factor in the dissemination of fashion images. Inspired by the Parisian situation, Hirsch adopted the custom of introducing new fashion into the theatre: actors and actresses appeared in costumes originating from the fashion house.[38] Portraits of actors and actresses in this clothing were distributed for PR purposes among their fans as individual photos in cabinet card format.[39] With Merkelbach, we find only the faintest trace of such a practice: for one photo of Mrs Brandes in a theatrical costume, the Merkelbach archive includes the annotation '6 postcards'.[40] Merkelbach, however, generally worked in larger sizes.

Photos of actors and actresses in fashionable clothing were also published in magazines like Cinema en Theater and Het Tooneel. Both magazines also devoted pages exclusively to fashion, as Cinema en Theater did in 1921, when it commissioned Studio Merkelbach to produce photos of swimwear.[41] (Fig. 13) This latter periodical also ordered photographs of the actresses Mientje Gosschalk and Greta Gijswijt from Merkelbach in clothing from Hirsch & Cie. The actress and singer Lola Cornero appears in dozens of Merkelbach's photos. (Fig. 14) According to Merkelbach's business records, she herself was the one to have the photographs commissioned. The question then arises: would she have handled her own public relations this actively? It appears that she wanted to have herself depicted in a more modern setting, against a stark white background, with a tunic over her dress, reminiscent of the Wiener Werkstätte.

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Fig. 13. Studio Merkelbach, Dolly Hoffmann in swimwear fashion, commissioned by Cinema en Theater magazine, 1921, gelatin silver print, 23,8 x 17,9 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-69.297.

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Fig. 14. Studio Merkelbach, Actress and singer Lola Cornero (Keizersgracht), 1921, 24,7 x 18,2 cm, gelatin silver print, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-69.503 (corresponding with glass negative no. 010164034127 in Amsterdam City Archives.)

Apparently, Merkelbach himself did not think it was improper for women to model clothing. Photos of his daughters Jo and Mies in fashionable clothing were shown in his display window on the street side of the Hirsch Building. (Fig. 15) After 1924, Mies was continually at her father's studio, as she worked for him as a retoucher. Over the years, she also assumed the role of a model with a great deal of verve on hundreds of occasions. For instance, in photos from around 1924, we see Mies posing in a luxurious fur , a beautiful blue raincoat, a glamorous evening dress, and various fashionable hats. (Fig. 16) Just as in his portraits of Letty van Wijk from the same period, in the portraits of Mies, the photographer experimented with greater intimacy by depicting her half- length. In the case of Letty van Wijk, this led to an erotic undertone, while the portraits of Mies taken in the same manner bear witness to a father's affection. The older man appears to have been very satisfied with one particular photo of Mies in a hat and wearing a light colored evening gown with a fur piece wrapped around the shoulders. (Fig. 17) He printed this portrait in various forms and formats, including a costly and time-consuming carbon print with the dimensions 40 by 50 centimeters.[42] He submitted it to an exhibition, and as the label on the back indicates, the photo graced a photo salon held in Bandung, a city in the Dutch East Indies, in 1925. In addition to these in-house projects, Mies also posed for a number of advertising commissions, which would continue to be a staple of Merkelbach's practice from the 1920s onwards. We see her, for instance, appearing in fashion photos for the Delana fashion stores in Amsterdam, and in photos taken for the Amsterdam goldsmith Reggers, in which she poses with jewelry.

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Fig. 15. Studio Merkelbach, Jo and Mies Merkelbach, between 1919 and 1929, carbon print, 52,4 x 44,7 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-61.1019.

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Fig. 16. Studio Merkelbach, Mies Merkelbach, between 1919 and 1929, Jos-Pé colour process, 27,8 x 21,8 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-61.1024.

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Fig. 17. Studio Merkelbach, ‘Mej. M.M.’ [Mies Merkelbach, in garments of Hirsch & Cie], 1924, carbon print, 49,1 x 38,6 cm, Leiden University Library, inv. no. PK-F-63.418.