November 10: Martin Imboden, who was born on this date in 1893 in Niederndorf, Switzerland, has been exhibited as a ‘forgotten’ Austrian photographer (Forgotten & Overlooked – from the collection of the Fotostiftung Schweiz 3 June to 20 August 2006, and in the publication of a similar title by René Perret Martin Imboden. A Forgotten Photographer, Benteli, Bern 1996).
Born into a Swiss working-class family, Imboden first trained as a cabinetmaker 1909-1912 and worked as a carpenter in Switzerland and in France 1913-1917 then in Basel and Zurich 1918-1929. It was only in 1923 that he began to take photographs.
In 1929 Imboden moved to Vienna, where he began to work as a freelance architectural photographer, at the same time undertaking courses at the Urania (opened in 1910 by Franz Joseph I of Austria as an educational facility with a public observatory and named after the Muse Urania who represents Astronomy) and at the Photosezession which had inspired Steiglitz’s 1902 American version.
Imboden had arrived in the city during the peak of Red Vienna (1918 to 1934) when the Socialist Workers’ Party of German Austria repeatedly won absolute majorities in the elections to parliament and local council. The Socialists undertook extensive multi-storey social housing projects on the back of a fiscal policy that brought bold reforms in the social, health and education policies. He photographed many of these municipal buildings.
At this time he encountered Gertrud Kraus and her New School of Arts which she had opened in 1927 in Vienna. It was a private school for rhythmic gymnastics and artistic dance. In this rare group of images he documents Kraus’s own energetic and expressionist performances.
Interest in modern, or ‘free’, dance was not uncommon, especially in the German area, but also worldwide, in the first half of the 20th century given the popularity of physical culture Körperkultur, the hygiene and care of one’s own body.
Kraus devised training particularly to improve the physical health of women. Through her program many young women, including Jula Isenburger and Mia Slavenska, ventured into and found success in a career in dance and movement. Imboden’s photography pays tribute to their strength of personality and physical presence through this series of portraits.
His approach is clearly experimental, though it is Photo-Secessionist rather than Modernist in spirit. The lighting is appropriately theatrical, intensifying the performative nature of these portraits in which the self-contained concentration of each young woman is paramount. He used bromoil and carbon printing, favourite printing techniques of the Pictorialist photographers, which enable adjustment of lights and intensification of darks through the application of a brush during development, with a painterly quality and warmth, often on hand-laid papers. There is no sense that these women are posing for a male gaze (the gaze of only one meets the lens) and in fact it is hard to find full-length photographs of these individuals by Imboden, though this, of Jula Isenburger, is his most published image.
In depicting the full-length figure in motion he is is not in the same league as E.O. Hoppé (1878-1972) or of František Drtikol (1883-1961) whose dance photographs tend more closely to Art Deco in their boldness of design. The sole Imboden nude that I can track down is modest, and dates from early in Imboden’s career, between 1926-28, and its motivation is to record a dance pose rather than any prurient interest. It is in his vigorous portraits of strong young women that he excels.
Imboden traveled in 1929-30 in North Africa, Greece and the Balkans, his reportage being distributed worldwide by the big Viennese Schostal photo agency which also represented Paul Wolff, Germaine Krull, Yva, Elisabeth Hase and Lotte Jacobi and supplied magazines such as Die Dame, Die Woche and Uhu and in Austria, Moderne Welt, Die Bühne, Wiener Salonblatt and Wiener Magazin.
Meanwhile, in 1929, a group of editors affiliated with the Austrian Social Democratic Party (SDAP) established Der Kuckuck (The Cuckoo). The magazine imitated the content and format of mainstream ‘boulevard weeklies’ like those above, but it was directed specifically at a working-class public. (see: Joyce Tsai (2005) ‘Der Kuckuck and the problem of workers’ photography in Austria’, History of Photography, 29:3, 275-286)
Der Kuckuck collaborated with its audience, introducing within its first year the innovation of a photography contest open to all readers. A signature feature of the magazine, this was described by the editors as a means to cultivate Arbeiterfotographie or ‘workers’ photography’, a term usually associated with the pioneering activities of the German communist magazines Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung and Arbeiterfotograf. An advertisement for the contest boldly announced, ‘Every reader becomes a contributor!’. The invitation came just as photography was coming in reach of the worker. In the early twenties a camera still cost them at least three weeks’ wages, but the introduction of cameras using roll film, such as with the Agfa Billy in 1928 made the medium affordable to the average skilled worker. The editors of Der Kukuck regarded the cultural enrichment that photography brought to the masses as socialism, while the hardline German wing spoke of the camera as a ‘weapon’ against capitalism.
The inclusion of reader-submitted photographs in Der Kuckuck began within the first year of its publication, in 1929, was poorly integrated, nearly arbitrary, but by 1930, amateur photographs were incorporated meaningfully as illustrations for Kuckuck articles. Imboden contributed to the magazine regularly 1930-34.
From 1932, individual contest submissions were assembled into one-page themed layouts, no longer joined to an article but presented as a gallery of exemplary photographs, not as models of agitational photography but as artistically successful compositions.
By this time Imboden had embraced the Modernism of The New Vision. His powerful image, which is certainly not a cliché of conventional feminine beauty, is of one of Kraus’ dancers, tightly cropped, lit with a single hard light and slashed across with a diagonal; the dancer’s costume, which occupies nearly half the image with a solid black encourages a reading of her shoulder and incisively modelled features as design elements. The picture editor and layout artist have bravely incorporated his photograph amongst the others by continuing or repeating the diagonal element. The page underscores the abstract beauty of the industrialized, modern world presented in a photographic style compatible with the historical moment.
However, the magazine’s conceit of political reformation through cultural enlightenment was threatened as the Austro-Fascists gained power, their membership expanding, in ‘Red Vienna’ itself, more than seven-fold from 1930 to 1932. As a response, workers’ photography that adhered or aspired to a modern style was scorned as apolitical or anti-socialist by Der Kuckuck‘s own editorial staff. Alexander Stern, journalist and photographer for the magazine, wrote of his colleagues in 1932:
Fifty-two times a year, they work days to construct, to experiment, to create new thoughts and are, now and again, a little angry with many photographers who only photograph clouds and chimneys, clouds over birches, clouds over prams, light on still life, light on girls’ heads, and glassy knick-knacks and forget that the camera of the worker photographer is a weapon with which one can also hunt political elephants. They are angry with these photographers because they have forgotten, with their attachment to idylls and romanticism, to bring our world view into the objective of the camera. This can be reconciled only when they bring the Kuckuck an abundance of good, large-format agitational materials.
It was not long before Nazism resolved this crisis of politics over style; Hitler condemned Modernism and promoted a retrograde, soul-less neo-classicism. On this date in 2016, as I write this daily post, we wake to a huge shift in America. It is salutary to remember how quickly things may change for the worse.
Imboden did not live to see the destruction of socialism in Austria. After the February 1934 uprising (Februarkämpfe) in Vienna, the Swiss photographer moved to Paris. Between his travels he lived and worked in Zurich. At the age of 42 he died on 19 August 1935 in an accident on a cycling tour in Herisau in Switzerland.
During his brief career, he had contributed to numbers of magazines beside Der Kukuck including Die Bühne (Vienna), Camera, Föhn, Paris-Magazine (Paris); Profil (Vienna), Zeitbilder (Tages-Anzeiger, Zurich), Swiss Illustrated Newspaper, Zurich Illustrated, among others.