December 11: Infection

11December 11: That photography may be used for good or evil is evident in those whose work can be regarded as from those opposite poles; Robert Koch (1843-1910) and Heinrich Hoffmann (1885-1957), born 42 years apart in the 1800s.

Robert Koch, born on this date, isolated and photographed the anthrax bacillus, Bacillus anthracis, the first bacterium shown to be the cause of a disease in 1877. Koch grew the organism in pure culture, demonstrated its ability to form endospores, and produced experimental anthrax by injecting it into animals.

Fifty years later, in 1927, Heinrich Hoffmann, who died on this date in 1957, took his photographs of Adolf Hilter; a pathogen of the political kind, just as deadly.

Seibert Photographic immersion lens  1868 with Gundlach correction collar, engraved with E. Gundlach / N o VII / immersion (shown inverted).


When Robert Koch began to study anthrax in Wolsztyn, he used a simple microscope bought for him by his wife, but he soon upgraded it. In February and March 1876, he found long and short “Bacteridien” that seemed to move “in an independent, slowly rocking motion”.

Zeiss microscope 1909

He was assisted in his discoveries by improvements in microscope design and the fact that manufacturers developed and marketed lenses purposed for recording images from the microscope. Koch worked with both Carl Zeiss and Ernst Leitz to develop better microscopes and microphotographic equipment.

A particular aid was the oil immersion objective (lens). Cedar tree oil between the specimen and the objective lens improves the resolving power; objectives specifically designed for this purpose are known as oil immersion objectives and used at very large magnifications. Their short focal lengths require that they almost touch the specimen and that facilitates the use of oil, which is applied to the specimen and when the stage is raised, immerses the objective in oil. The relative refractive indices of oil and glass being nearly the same means that the refraction of light will be small upon entering the lens. Without immersion oil severe spherical aberration would render a very restricted, unusable area of focus.

Apparatus for microphotography (c. 1880). Bilddatenbank Nachlass R. Koch

Visual representation was key to legitimising bacteriology as an experimental science. As early as 1845, Aloys Pollender had found “plants” in the blood of animals that died of anthrax and had published his observations in 1855, but they were largely ignored.

Koch in his laboratory with a Zeiss microscope.

Ferdinand Cohn, whose investigations verified Koch’s discovery of the cause of anthrax, taught Koch how to take microphotographs, who continued to use it as part of his methodology. It supported his observations with the microscope and allowed him to share his results with a large audience. This established photography as a part of bacteriology (now called the “visualisation of results”), but images were not yet accepted as a part (and a result) of observation.

When photography was discovered in 1839, Henry Fox Talbot pronounced it was the “pencil of nature”, that is, a direct transcription of what was before the lens. Archaeologists and botanist recognised its advantages straight away. It was Koch, working with phenomena invisible to those without a microscope, who conceived of photography as a tool for the documentation and comparison of microbes and thus part of scientific proof.

This was a radical shift; the function of the photograph had change from being an illustration to being the subject of investigation. Photography, precise and objective was accepted because it was independent of the individual perception that called into question the drawings made from observations through the microscope. Microphotography had become a method of scientific proof and a means of detection; the images were able to be used to measure and compare bacteria. Koch argued that some of the germs were so small that they remained hidden from the human eye even with a microscope, while photographs would allow precise investigations.

Microphotography helped establish bacteriology among the medical sciences in which it became accepted into other medical disciplines. It was a major advance in the acceptance of photography as a prosthetic eye that we now extend to other, more advanced forms of imaging as scientific investigation extends its reach into realms otherwise undetectable by the human senses, for example at the molecular level, or at the edge of our comprehension.

Carl von Nägeli (1817–1891) was cynical of microphotographs, convinced that fine structures would lack sufficient contrast to be recorded, but by 1887 accepted that to “Koch belongs the credit of being the first to extend the application of photomicrography to the delineation of bacteria”

Koch: bacillus anthracis

Koch’s  photographs determined that germs were independent forms of life. Some scientists believed that they had seen flagella moving on bacteria, and others denied this; by 1878 the The Royal Microscopical Society proceedings contained a paper by W.H. Dallinger On the Measurement of the Diameter of the Flagella of Bacterium termo: a Contribution to the Question of the “Ultimate Limit of Vision” with our present Lenses. Koch resolved this dispute by taking photos of the flagella.

By the end of 1876, Koch advocated the use of the collotype as a means of reproducing his imagery of ‘the invisible’. It is a dichromate -based photographic process invented by Alphonse Poitevin in 1856 and used for large volume mechanical printing instead of photo-lithography. The collotype preserved a photo’s originality and helped convince non-professionals that the pictures were free of any individual influence and were credible scientific evidence.

Heinrich Hoffmann (1927) Posed portrait of Adolf Hitler giving a speech

Before 1923, Hitler forbade photographs, prompting the satirical weekly Simplicissimus in May that year to ask “What does Hitler look like?”, answering the question with a series of caricatures by Thomas Theodore Heine, one parodying the “fascinating eyes” that fans raved about.

Thenceforth, photographer Heinrich Hoffmann became Hitler’s confidant and was entrusted to manage his image, in fact to create it. His series of Hitler the orator in full flight were made in private, not intended as direct propaganda but as a means of visual feedback that Hitler used in orchestrating his gestures and the projection of his hate-filled rhetoric.

Hoffmann made thousands of photographs, broadcasting them in the party propaganda, in magazines, newspapers and in postcards, so that by 1932, Hitler was sufficiently known that his disembodied head on a black background above the text “HITLER”, was all that was required on one particularly striking and effective poster, his face was the party.

Hitler Election Poster 1932

As Hoffmann moved closer to the Fuhrer, eventually introducing him and Eva Braun, his office assistant, he was able to make his fortune releasing volume after volume of photographs of a more personal view of Hitler that sold hundreds of thousands, even millions, of copies.

Even after the war Hoffmann capitalised on this, releasing Hitler Was My Friend two years before he died. 1955 reviewer Alan Bullock declared; “[Hoffmann’s] interest does not rise above that of a gossip-writer and he appears quite unaware of the issues raised by the career of the man whom he claims as a friend. At the end, the reader recalls with astonishment that the man he has been reading about once bestrode Europe and defied a world in arms. The riddle of his genius, his passion and his will to power remains: the answer will not be found here.”

Clearly despite Hoffmann’s exclusive access to, and ‘close-up’, ostensibly intimate imaging of Hitler he remained blind to the corruption of the individual whose favours he curried. Like the immersion lens, his view was achieved only with the proximity he achieved through the addition of the oil of sycophancy. In fact, it saved his life to have fallen out of favour with the Fuhrer in the last stages of the War when Hitler’s trust shifted to Martin Bormann who disliked Hoffmann. On 10 May 1945 he was arrested and later sentenced to a mere four years for war profiteering, and able to settle into quiet last years in a village near Munich. Hoffmann’s boorish ignorance and lack of conscience made him a perfect propagandist.

For Hitler, as for any psychopath in the public eye, his view of himself through Hoffmann’s imagery reinforced his megalomania, supporting the distorted view being fed him by unctuous hangers-on. Propaganda is double-edged; its infective power depends on a level of susceptibility, driven by fealty or fear in its recipients, regardless of their support or rejection of the subject.

To see Hitler through the perspective of his failure does of course diminish Hoffmann’s propaganda, which we may regard to some extent as quaint or outmoded, but the distance enables us to see how essential is the element of societal self-deception of its white-washing in propping up these trappings of power, ad to see that they attach to the individual only though their oversimplification.

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