April 3: Eventually separated by the Iron Curtain, two German-born photographers had origins at the opposite ends of the economic spectrum.
They were Joseph Breitenbach and Walter Ballhause, who was the younger by fifteen years, both born on this date, Breitenbach in 1896 (†1984) and Ballhause in 1911 (†1991).
Both were prolific, and the life work of each continues to illustrate their different upbringing, though both actively subscribed to left-wing politics.
Walter Ballhause was the youngest child of shoemaker Karl Ballhause and leather quilter Anna, and grew up in poor conditions, moving residences ten times and schools eight times in the eight years from his enrolment. The strain of poverty on their relationship must have been too much for their relationship and his parents divorced in 1919. Walter moved with his mother to Hannover. There he found work as a newspaper boy and in 1925 managed to finish elementary school:
In Easter the last frost was over so I ran barefoot until the first frost of the autumn. My mother could not buy me new shoes, and so shoes for the winter had to be enough.
That same year he began his training as a laboratory technician at the Hanomag mechanical engineering company in Hanover-Linden. However, he became unemployed after 1928. He joined and was employed by the Social Democratic youth organization “Die Falken” and became a member from 1929 to 1931 of the SPD, then the dominant German party, then in 1931 founded the local chapter in Hanover of the Socialist Workers Party of Germany (SAP) with Otto Brenner.
Ballhause in an interview accounts for his motivations:
I liked to draw, but somehow through my entire childhood and education I was not taught to sketch or paint. But I learned through reading. I came upon a book Empörung und Gestaltung [roughly; ‘Indignation and Design’] which triggered a spark in me, namely to take a camera and try to capture what I felt in Frans Masereel, Heinrich Zille, Kathe Kollwitz, Max Liebermann, George Grosz and Otto Dix and the rest of them. I saw their pictures on the street. And so I then set out to do it – but I have to say, it was only made possible through my friend Bina Lengefels who had bought a small inconspicuous camera which she put at my disposal – to do with the Leica what others did in engraving, the woodcut, in linocut, or made with charcoal or with a brush.
His photographs of dismembered victims of the First World War begging in the streets during the deepest of the Depression years are like an Otto Dix (1891–1969) or George Grosz (1893–1959) come to life.
This image was much used during the 2008 GFC to evoke the Depression, sometimes with the graffiti ‘Choose Hitler’ and swastika, left over from the last election, retouched out.
His pictures are usually made from the side or the back of his proletarian subjects because he was working surreptitiously, unwilling to let anyone, even those in his frame, see him photographing, which he did quickly with the camera concealed under a jacket or windcheater.
Why? Because it was not my own camera. It was a borrowed, expensive one, and I knew that the police had the habit of smashing the camera and taking the film away from anyone who took pictures somewhere.
In fact his politics did attract the attention of the Gestapo who in 1934 arrested him because of “leftist operations”. However, their search of his flat was fruitless. His wife had concealed his negatives in the cellar behind the potato crate.
One of his most chilling images is that of young secondary school students marching to celebrate Hitler’s birthday not just because of our retrospective knowledge of their fate but because of the sneering, brutish expressions they imitate from their elders.
He did produce one series with the extended cooperation of his subject to depict the typical week in the life of an unemployed man and his family.
Ballhause was most active 1930-33 because from 1934-1941 he once again found employment as a laboratory technician at Hanomag then attended night school and graduated as a chemical engineer before moving to Straßberg, a suburb of Plauen in Saxony where until 1944 he was laboratory manager at Vomag. Again he was arrested on August 30 that year due to his contact with “anti-fascist cells” in his company, and sent to prison in Plauen and then at Zwickau until April 17 1945 when Allied troops liberated him.
After the war Ballhause founded a local group of the Communist Party in Straßberg and was made Mayor from 1945 to 1947. He took up the camera again to document the lives of postwar refugees in Straßberg. From 1947-1971 he worked on the construction and management of the Plamag foundry in Plauen where, in 1947, he created a portraits of foundry workers of his company.
In this case the subjects look proudly into the camera though they bear the signs of weariness from the war years and the continued economic hardship. Living within the GDR Ballhause maintained a realist perspective on its promises of economic miracles.
His work was ‘rediscovered’ in the 1970s after he contributed about 1,000 prints of his photographs for the exhibition Resistance in Lower Saxony. Exhibitions in Germany in 1977, and from 1981 internationally, followed, with invitations to give lectures on his work in 1982 in East Germany, West Germany and the United States. Though never a formal member and always a photographer who preferred to work on his own, he was honoured with membership of the Arbeiterfotografie eV, the worker-photographer movement.
Josef Breitenbach by contrast was born into a Jewish-born wine merchant family from Munich and during the difficult post-war years graduated with both a technical and commercial training and studied at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München Philosophie und Kunstgeschicht (Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich philosophy and art history). All this time his main interest was on photography rather than on running his parents’ business.
As a student he also became involved for the first time politically in the pacifist youth organization of the SPD. He actively participated in the November Revolution and then held office in the government of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic.
Though his parent trading company went bankrupt in 1932, while Ballhause was one of a million unemployed photographing other unemployed, Breitenbach managed to open his first photography studio in Munich, attracting customers from Munich artistic circles and producing striking portraits of actors and other artists from his circle of acquaintances.
His portrait of Fred Endrikat (1890–1942), however, is no ordinary portrait; using cut and paste montage he sets the cabaret performer against a stark background, a reminder of the man’s working class beginnings as a miner’s son.
His portrait of Sibylle Binder (1895–1962), taken when the stage and movie actor was performing in Munich, is an early example of his trademark complex colour toning. Breitenbach treats it as much as painting as a photograph; his scumbling over the black photographic background with a white-loaded dry brush and even into the clothing reduces the overall contrast so that the applied colour and sepia toner over the bleached-back face produces lifelike, delicate skin tones.
After the Nazis took power in 1933 Breitenbach was targeted by the SA due to his Jewish ancestry as well as his political past. In the essay Josef Breitenbach: Manifest Beauty, Larisa Dryansky writes,
In August 1933, a gang of SA troopers banged on the door of his studio. Thrusting under their noses a portrait of Von Papen he’d taken the year before, and a letter of thanks he’d received in exchange, Breitenbach convinced the gullible bullies that he was under the former chancellor’s protection.
With his passport about to expire, Breitenbach made his way to France a few days later, joining the cohort of German exiles seeking refuge in Paris. There he joined the group of artists around André Breton; Man Ray, Jacques-André Boiffard, Brassaï, Eli Lotar and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Breitenbach photographed his fellow artists in exile like Helene Weigel (1900–1971), Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Lyonel Feininger (1871–1956) and participated in the 1938 Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris.
Having lost his German citizenship that year he lived only six years in Paris until the beginning of World War II in 1939 and after a short internment in Marseille in 1941 fled to New York, where he found like minds and was easily assimilated. Here his tedency toward experimenation became full-blown. He refers to Cubism in the following medium-format proofsheet and also embraced abstraction in his hand-coloured and chemically toned photograms as well as solarisation, bas-relief and tone-dropout.
Almost as soon as Breitenbach arrived in the United States, Josef Albers (1888–1976) invited him to teach at Black Mountain College where mixed-media was de rigeur. We see him place a diagram of human circulation, copied on to line film in negative, over a variety of backgrounds, in a series called Omen, one of which includes multiple printing of flying seaplanes in an evocation of the threat of war, from which in American he now found refuge. Clearly, his imprisonment and release profoundly affected Breitenbach.
His embrace of everything American is celebrated in his We New Yorkers of 1942, in which the same medical diagram is given a bas-relief treatment and toned and placed a winter cityscape of lit-up, towering skyscrapers to convey the wired, frenetic life-style that he enjoyed there in the company of artistic friends and colleagues.
He continued his interest from his European years in surrealistic imagery through double-exposure, superimposition of negatives, double-printing and darkroom montage. Though never offically a member of the movement it is a driving force in his virtuoso innovation.
Equally accepted was his (relatively) ‘straight’ photography; Walker Evans (1903–1975) published some of his early United States work in Fortune magazine and he continued as a portrait photographer of the likes of James Joyce (1882–1941) and Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1974).
Photography was for him both a means of recording reality but equally the producer of what his friend Max Ernst called “unpeopled dreams.”