Erwin Blumenfeld was born in Berlin, Germany in 1897. He studied at the rigorous Askanisches Gymnasium in Berlin. At the age of ten he received his first camera as a gift and he described this moment as when his "real life started." From the beginning, Blumenfeld was intrigued by reflected images and fascinated by mirrors.
In 1923, he graduated from high school but could not further his studies due to his father's illness and consequent death, which left the family in financial ruin. Blumenfeld and his childhood best friend Paul Citroen met Herwarth Walden, publisher of the cultural weekly, Der Sturm in 1915. During this time Berlin was becoming a dynamic forum for the international avant-garde. Expressionists, Fauvists, Cubists, and Futurists exhibited regularly in the city since the beginning of 1910. Through Walden both Blumenfeld and Citroen met the founding members of the Berlin Dada movement: George Grosz, Walter Mehring, Wieland Herzfelde, and his brother Helmut Hertzfelde (John Heartfield). In 1917, Citroen was sent to Amsterdam as a representative of Der Sturm and Blumenfeld was drafted into the German army.
After the end of World War I, Blumenfeld moved to Amsterdam where he reunited with Paul and his sister Lena Citroen whom he married in 1921. Once in Amsterdam he established himself as a Dada artist and created some of his most important collages. He worked the following seventeen years as a bookseller, art dealer and leather-goods merchant, while teaching himself photography. Blumenfeld displayed his photographic work on the walls of his store among the handbags and belts. When the leather store went bankrupt in 1936, Blumenfeld moved to Paris, where he took advertising commissions and rented a studio in Montparnasse.
In 1937, Blumenfeld published a series of photographs in the first two issues of the prestigious art quarterly, Verve. In 1938, he met Cecil Beaton who helped him secure a contract at Conde Nast. His first portfolio appeared in the October 1938 issue of French Vogue, and the May issue included another twenty page spread, which featured Blumenfeld's legendary photograph of model Lisa Fonssagrives on the edge of the Eiffel Tower. In 1939, Vogue did not renew his contract and he decided to move to New York, where he met editor Carmel Snow at Harper's Bazaar which gave him a well-paid assignment in Paris. During World War II, Blumenfeld spent several years interned in a French prisoner-of-war camp from which he miraculously escaped and emigrated to the United States, becoming a naturalized citizen. For the next twenty years he ran his own studio and became an extremely successful fashion and commercial photographer, producing more than one-hundred color covers for Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, Look, Cosmopolitan and other magazines.
At Harper's Bazaar, Blumenfeld worked with renowned art director Alexey Brodovich. Blumenfeld secured major advertising contracts with clients such as Helena Rubenstein and Elizabeth Arden. Blumenfeld returned to Vogue in 1944. Art director Alexander Liberman gave Blumenfeld a considerable amount of creative freedom and encouraged him to experiment with veiled images, where models were photographed behind ground glass and cellophane or reflected in mirrors, as well as color photography into his work. Liberman appreciated his Dadaist and Surrealist inclinations and recognized that his carefully composed, surprising images would make impressive covers. Blumenfeld experimented with solarization, double-exposure, silhouetting, vignetting, abstraction, selective bleaching, negative-positive combinations and optical distortion. His use of damp cloth to drape and swathe the female form was widely copied by younger photographers. Liberman included Blumenfeld's photographs in his book, The Art and Technique of Color Photography, published in 1951. Blumenfeld had successfully adapted his technique to color photography and produced many bold, striking, often slightly erotic, pictures.
Blumenfeld was included in two group exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1947 and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1948. Erwin Blumenfeld dedicated the last years of his life painting, writing and composing his autobiography, in his native German. Blumenfeld died on a trip to Rome, Italy in 1969.