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Travelling with Elsa Haertter

An exhibition that has just opened in Milan pays tribute to the German photographer who turned fashion into reportage.

German photographer Elsa Haertter was a pioneer in this art: dedicating her life to fashion she provided fantastical adventures for fashion readers while chronicling, year after year, the constant changes in trends. An exhibition organised and curated by Armando Honegger Srl that has just opened in Milan, “Viaggiare con la moda” (travelling through fashion), celebrates Elsa Haertter through various displays and photographs, all of them analysing a different aspect of her work.

Born Germany in 1905, after her studies at the Akademie der bildende Künst in Stuttgart with Willi Baumeister, Haertter became a fashion journalist in Paris and started collaborating with German magazines. Moving to Italy during the war, she found her true vocation. Unhappy with the outcomes of the photo shoots she was styling, she decided to learn more about photography. Her first efforts - mainly in black and white - chronicled the rebirth of Italy after the war and during the first years of the economic boom, allowing us to get an interesting insight into the professional relationship Haertter built with tailors, dressmakers, designers and models through her shots for magazines and look books. The culmination of her career came at the end of the ‘50s when, working for weekly magazine Grazia, she did a series of photo shoots entitled “Viaggi di Grazia” (Grazia’s Travels), shot during trips all over the world with professional reporters.     

Haertter’s innovative style was absolutely unique: while at the beginning she used as background for her photo shoots historical Italian palaces and squares, for her “Viaggi di Grazia” series she moved her locations to other countries, from Brazil to China, from Africa to Mexico, from India to the Antarctic continent. Telling a story, writing a travel diary and communicating the essence of modern fashion through her images turned into her main aims. Soon the most ordinary images of a picture postcard Italy became a distant memory as fashion was elevated to reportage and a new and extremely interesting relation between the outfits and the locations was born. Models wearing colourful outfits were photographed among parrots, their technicolour dresses rivalling the vivid feathers of the birds; designer and princess Irene Galitzine was photographed for Grazia in 1965 in Thailand, the decorative elements of the temple behind her perfectly matching the elaborate fabric of her dress. 
A very important aspect of this exhibition is the emphasis the organisers gave to the photographer’s diaries. Haertter’s personal archive includes around 30,000 photographs, plus many letters and drawings and around 60 diaries in which she jotted down her thoughts and notes about various trips and photo shoots. Giant notebooks in the exhibition space interact with the photographs and the displays, while monitors show  diaries being leafed through, the camera lingering on the notes about another passion of the photographer; Italian food. Towards the end of the exhibition there is a section dedicated to mysticism, an interest Haertter had developed during her trips with Grazia through various Asian countries.
Accompanied by an impeccable catalogue by Walking Fashion, “Viaggiare con la moda” is a trip through fashion, culture, history and the universe of a talented artist who will be forever remembered for transforming fashion into a vital part of a journalistic reportage.
“Viaggiare con la moda. I racconti itineranti di Elsa Haertter ”, Triennale di Milano, Viale Emilio Alemagna 6, until 14th October 2008.