May 2: Photomontage consists of two components; the photographs and their assembly. Here are the two personalities in collaboration behind the production of the most famous examples of this art.
We all know John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld 1891 – 1968) that most acerbic of all visual critics of the Nazis, monteur par excellence! But who took the photographs that he used for his provocative visual political commentary?
Heartfield spent long hours scouring the Ullstein Picture Service and other Berlin press archives for images to make his posters and magazine covers. He was even known to get behind the camera himself, which he did on his trip to Russia whilst on an excursion for USSR in Construction with Gustavs Klucis, who rather audaciously laid claim to inventing political photomontage. In fact four of the photographs Heartfield took were published in the December 1931 issue of USSR in Construction. But he was not confident of his camerawork so preferred to direct photographs taken for him, especifically by his favourite photographer, Hungarian Janós Reismann (*1905, Szombathely).
Here he records Heartfield directing a shoot in 1931. Scaffolding near the left-wing Consortium of Publicity and Advertising Agencies (of which Reismann and Heartfield were members) provided the set. Three of the group’s officers, one in an appropriate top hat and dress jacket, symbol of the capitalist, are urged up a ladder while Heartfield circles impatiently in the foreground. The last picture Reismann’s sequence, cunningly montaged with a dollar sign becomes the cover of Upton Sinclair’s So macht man Dollars (‘This Is How Men Make Dollars’).
Apart from his 1982 memoir, Nyugtalan évek: Reismann János fotómuvész munkássága (‘Restless Years: Work of János Reismann photographer’) posthumously issued by his sister Marianne, also a photographer, which is out of print and in Hungarian, I can find scant information about Reismann himself, probably because his death on this date May 2, 1976 in obscurity in a nursing home in Budapest, came after several years of suffering angina pectoris, depression, loss of memory and dementia. There is a little on his collaborations with Heartfield in photo historian Andrés Mario Zervigón‘s 2012 John Heartfield and the Agitated Image Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage.
Reismann (a.k.a. Wolf Reiss) lived a tumultuous life in the thick of mid-century Central European upheavals, but were the photographs he took independent of Heartfield of any significance?
His comments on the emerging photo agencies that Heartfield used are just as relevant, if not more so, to today’s;
This boom spawned wholly novel enterprises. Journalists, or writers who fancied themselves journalists, bankrupt businessmen without capital, grand or petty adventurers, all of them opened photo agencies. Their business was not current events – since they could not compete with the old, established firms in that area – but reportage and photo series of all kinds. They provided the ‘ideas’ and looked for photographers to carry them out. And then they sold the finished product, or didn’t. In the end they settled up with the photographer, honestly, dishonestly, or not at all
He was the son of a teacher and a doctor, but not permitted to enroll at the Hungarian University because of anti-semitic laws, so he worked at the bank before emigrating to Paris at the age of twenty. There he enrolled in the faculty of Chemistry at the Sorbonne in Montparnasse, where he met many artists in the cafes and bars, and where one day he was approached to take photos on a movie set.
Knowing nothing of the trade, he learned everything he could from the American fashion photographer Peter Powel, the same man whom Henri Cartier-Bresson credits with encouraging him to take up photography. Reismann learned quickly and in March 1927 he was invited by another photographer, an otherwise unidentified ‘Schneider’, to move to Berlin where he augmented his skills at the Staatliche Fachschule Berlin before graduating from the Academy of Cinema and Photography of Monaco to join the staff of the left-wing Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (the Illustrated Workers Magazine, AIZ). In Berlin, he met the German costume designer Sylta Busse (1906–1989), whom he married. He also worked on AIZ beside John Heartfield.
Records of Reismann’s life and work are sketchy, but his statements of profound admiration for Heartfield are often quoted. “People don’t have any idea how difficult it is to be a photomonteur,” he would say, and especially vivid is his account of the confrontation that led to an image that could be described as Heartfield’s manifesto.
The episode occurred when cinephile Heartfield happened to be in one of Berlin’s cinemas when a topical newsreel aroused his still-raw memories of the Bloody May confrontations of the port-Nazi SPD with German communists on May Day 1929, in which civilians were killed through the actions of Berlin’s SPD police commissioner, Karl Zörgiebel. János Reismann recalled:
Not everything was shown [in the reel], but certainly something. At any rate, it was enough to give an idea of the bestial and brutal action of Zörgiebel’s police, overwhelmingly and cold-bloodedly murdering unarmed workers. Even the mostly good bourgeois audience at the Ufa Zoo Palace answered the film strips with howls and scornful whistling. There were naturally those who demonstratively and approvingly applauded the actions of Zörgiebel’s police, among them a Teuton as tall as a tree who sat not far from the photomonteur. Heartfield leaped from his seat as if stung by a tarantula and hissed at the broad-shouldered German, “You swine! You swine! You swine!”
After the program came to an end, the Teuton, who lay in wait for Heartfield, grabbed the slight man by his collar. “Now you will surely and promptly take back your insult.—What did you say I was?” Heartfield, in an iron vice, powerless, scarcely breathing: “You are a swine.” The man threw Heartfield to the floor and punched him over and over in the face, repeating with rage, “What am I? What am I?” Heartfield, with lips pressed together: “A swine. A swine. A swine”. . . until he was freed—bloody, smashed, half unconscious—by a growing crowd of onlookers.
Heartfield’s revenge was to sever Police Commissioner Zörgiebel’s head with his pair of scissors as he poses in this portrait, made most likely by Reismann.
Heartfield was demanding; to the despair of many a photographer he would not depart from a shoot until the exact image that he had in mind was “in the can”, and then could not wait to see the results straight from the darkroom, as Reismann recounts:
Taking photos for Heartfield, based on meticulous pencil sketches and always under his personal supervision, often covered sessions lasting many, many hours. He strove for nuances which I could no longer even perceive. While they [Reismann’s photos] were being developed in the darkroom, he would stand at the enlarger till the prints were ready. I often was so tired that I couldn’t stand, couldn’t think, only wanted to sleep—but he would run home with the photos still wet, dry them, cut them out, and assemble them under a heavy glass plate. He would sleep for two hours, and at eight in the morning he would already sit with the [professional] retoucher for two, three, four, five, hours, his nerves stretched to the breaking point: It was always possible that the retoucher might still botch things up.
Even when the montage was ready, the relief didn’t last long: there were new plans, new ideas. He browsed about again in the photo archives for hours and days on end. . . . Then, back to the photographers, all of whom he hated—including me— because they wouldn’t perceive the nuances, from the photographer, to the retoucher, whom he had “drilled” himself. . . . [For Heartfield], an idea can never be striking enough, the formulation never precise enough, the montage never clear enough. Better to return to the archives, to the photographers, to the retoucher.
Only when he held the finished prints in his hand, enlarged to the millimetre in size that he needed for his montage would Heartfield begin to assemble the image components, often until late at night and often assisted by Wieland Herzfelde, (1896–1988) who helped out his brother with his more legible handwriting.
“I stood with my camera ready,” Reismann recalled of one particularly fanciful task he had been called upon to perform, as Heartfield hypnotized a crab to make it retract its “mustache” and open its claws.
When the crab definitively refused and I suggested first killing the animal to make handling it easier, Heartfield objected most decisively. A dead crab can never look as lively as a live crab. A photograph that is supposed to be of a live crab will doubtlessly appear more authentic than a photo of a dead crab.
Together with Heartfield, AIZ offered Reismann the trip to the Soviet Union.
He accepted and stayed there seven years, from 1931 to 1938, taking photographs for Na Strojke and Soyuzfoto and various photo-illustrated magazines such as USSR in Construction, Ogonyok, as well as continuing to contribute to the AIZ; Heartfield commissioned him in Moscow to assist in the production of a montage that would appear in the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) 10, no. 26 (1931): 517.
During his time in the USSR he documented the cities of Siberia, the Red Army and the farmers’ cooperatives. It was the era of Stalin and Reismann asked, unsuccessfully, to join the Communist Party. In 1938 he was declared “undesirable” and his residence permit was not renewed. It probably saved his life given that the Stalinist purges were underway.
On return to Paris, he freelanced, taking street photographs, circus photographs, artists including Mauro Reggiani (1897 – 1980), and the Parisian small trades, using the darkrooms of fellow Hungarians Brassai and Robert Capa to process his film and prints. He also worked for the French Resistance and from 1945 traveled between Hungary and Paris reporting for Szabad Nep and Jovendo newspapers, gaining the position of cultural attaché of the Paris Embassy.
After the war he returned to his beloved Hungary where his career experienced a remarkable revival and publication of a book of his Russian images, translated into French in 1947 Images de Russie with an introduction by journalist Pierre Courtade (1915–1963).
His good fortune was dramatically interrupted by the trial of László Rajk, interior minister and foreign minister of Hungary who was targeted in 1949 as the main accused in lawsuits initiated by Mátyás Rákosi of the Hungarian Workers’ Party, an implementation of the Stalin terror. Rajk was executed later that year for invented crimes. Reismann was one of many who, though their association with Rajk, were subsequently rounded up, accused of conspiracy and sentenced to life imprisonment.
He was released from prison in 1954 under an amnesty, recognized as innocent, and compensated with 135,000 florins, an apartment and a passport.
The first work of his freedom, Italien, had a great reception at the Book Fair in Frankfurt, and it was there that he had the inspiration to travel to Sardinia in 1959 to make a book in collaboration with Carlo Levi who wrote the text.
Before leaving, he met in Rome Congressman Mario Berlinguer who delivered letters of recommendation for friends and relatives on the island in order to facilitate his movements in what was considered dangerous territory, though this was just prior to the influx of tourists and their ‘discovery’ of Sardinia in the Swinging Sixties.
It is the photographs that he made there that best demonstrate his talent, but also the lessons he learned from the great photomonteur, Heartfield, like this picture made in the headlong, bas-relief light of late afternoon.
Here, beneath a cruciform arrangement of plumbing or electric conduit on an expanse of wall which dominates two-thirds of the image, are three girls shielding their eyes from the last of the sunlight, watched by a small boy with a discarded barrow wheel at his feet. To either side are vignettes containing further groups; two boys watching others whose shadows enter from offstage left, and on the right a group of men in black, deep in discussion. The deep-silled windows reinforce the De Chirico-esque metaphysical assemblage of this space.
It is as if the components have been painstakingly montaged; it is an impression reinforced by the predominance of windows, and conjunctions across spaces sliced by other boundaries and frames, in so many of the images he so sensitively made in the as yet unspoilt, proud and tough peasant community of the island.