September 4: German Trümmerfotografie (rubble photography or the photography of ruins) is an ambiguous genre that was specific to the aftermath of World War Two but is now haunting the nation.
Those who have read recent posts know, I have a Wikipedia project to unearth and document the lives of the photographers who contributed to The Family of Man; out of a desire to know more about this landmark mid-century exhibition of photography which has been seen by numbers approaching 10 million, as it is still on exhibition.
Curator Edward Steichen travelled to Europe to seek out contributors there and also recruited participants from another block-buster show he had mounted earlier, in 1953, also at the Museum of Modern Art; Post-War European Photography – more than 300 photographs by 78 photographers from 11 countries.
Steichen included eleven German photographers and as many pre-war émigrés to America; including Andreas Feininger, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Clemens Kalischer, Marion Palfi, Ralph Crane, and Otto Hagel, in The Family of Man. August Sander was represented with three photos, and German-led photographic Modernism was exemplified by Herbert List.
When Steichen visited Germany, it was a divided, defeated country and still in ruins. He selected work by Hermann Claasen (1899–1987), who had in 1947, with the support of Konrad Adenauer (then mayor of Cologne), released his photobook Gesang im feuerofen : Köln; überreste einer alten deutschen stadt (‘Singing in the Furnace: Cologne, remains of an old city’), containing his trümmerfotografien (rubble photographs) of Cologne after Allied aerial bombing. Most of his pictures show an uninhabited landscape, everything living, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, returned to a mineral state, a triumph of entropy.
The Destruction Business, as Don McCullin so aptly named it, is still with us; even historians of photography took part, as Aaron Scharf recounts in Flak, his autobiography of himself as a young WW2 pilot, though he did his best not to hit any Italian monuments. Ruins have figured significantly in the the history of our medium, appearing as it did at the tail end of the Romantic period, in which the melancholy paintings of Caspar David Friedrich of architectural ecclesiastical relics are prime examples, and which many Victorians perpetuated in their Grand Tour and Holy Land photographs. Ruins exert a vexatious, ambiguous, attraction.
However the photograph Steichen chose was the one above which pushes the rubble to the background; it pictures a roundelay of children, and was exhibited with seventeen others of children joining hands for a ‘Ring-a-ring-a-rosie’, all mounted on a stand that, in form, imitated the circular dance motion of the children in each photograph and forced the audience to take up the step.
It is clear however that these children are dancing in front of a war-damaged building like the ruins before which another ring of kids in Italy capers in an adjacent Family of Man photo by David ‘Chim’ Seymour (above). The message embedded in these images of apparently carefree childhood is that amongst the ruins young lives thrive and with them, hope; never mind the destruction and the ruthless politics of war. Is this a meaning less apparent to us now, leading its critics to perpetuate Roland Barthes’ impression that Steichen’s exhibition was all about sentimentality?
With the title Köln, Kinder an der Barbara-Kaserne (Cologne, children at the Barbara barracks) one might assign other meaning in this photograph, but the photographs were not captioned in The Family of Man. The laughing children are playing outside what was a military barracks during WW2, in the street named Barbara, after the patron saint of artillerymen.
In the 100-year-old postcard above, the barracks was home to a WW1-era mounted artillery regiment. To Claasen, who was born in the year that troops moved in, it would have been a significant landmark.
After WW1 the buildings were not used by the military again until the Nazis in 1936 housed Reichswehr troops there and during World War II it was occupied by the 16th Artillery Regiment and the 317th Training Battalion whose soldiers fought in the second phase of the western campaign of the Battle of France, moving in 1942 to the Eastern Front where they suffered heavy losses. Half of the structure survived the Allied bombardment and the remains were used as housing for some of the many families who were made homeless, presumably those of these children.
What were Claasen’s politics at this time? I can find nothing of his war record; he would have been forty when war broke out and Hitler had introduced universal conscription early in 1935 for all males 18-45 who were prescribed military service in the Wehrmacht for one year, extended to two in 1936. Conscription would not have made him necessarily a Nazi, though volunteering would require such allegiance. Why is that important, since Steichen overlooked, or ignored, the Nazi history of at least two of the Axis photographers included in The Family of Man? They were German Erich Andres and the Austrian policeman Leopold Fischer. In writing a Wikipedia entry on Claasen, I want to be sure of my facts!
How then do we read this image of children dancing on the doorstep of what was an army barracks? Is Claasen indicating that their joy is at the downfall of the military who had brought on the aerial bombardment? Such an interpretation comes up against the absence in Singing in the Furnace of any mention even of the word ‘bomb’, let alone any discussion of blame of either the Allies or the Nazis.
Instead, from amidst Claasen’s rubble appear the signs of a religious judgement and redemption; indeed the book title refers to Daniel and his companions in the Old Testament who, thrown into an oven for their defiance of Nubuchadnezzar, attain divine salvation by singing hymns.
Given this deflection, and genuflection, to religion, there is no determining whether Claasen, or the writer of the book’s introduction Franz A. Hoyer (who protested “This book contains images before which language fails”), intended to answer the indictment of Germans for their war crimes with evidence of their own suffering.
However, many of the pictures were made by Clausen during the war, against the strict prohibitions against photography of ruins, which hints at an anti-government, and perhaps pacifist stance. One can only ask whether these are accusatory images, like Richard Peter‘s Dresden; eine Kamara klagt (‘Dresden: A Camera Accuses’), though the latter, a communist, was no lover of Nazis.
Later editions of Claasen’s book include human figures and the emphasis changes to survival and revival, the picture of the children dancing amongst them.
Steven Hoelscher in ‘Dresden, a Camera Accuses’: Rubble Photography and the Politics of Memory in a Divided Germany’, in History of Photography, 2012, warns that the annual remembrance of victims of the bombing has since 2005 been commandeered by violent demonstrators from the far-right National Democratic Party (NDP), which Germany’s own domestic intelligence has described as ‘racist, anti-Semitic, and revisionist’, and its members use Trümmerfotografie to characterise the allied bombing as ‘a unique Holocaust perpetrated on the Germans’ and to call for an ‘end [to] the one-sided culture of victimhood in Germany, which only remembers victims from other countries and ignores the suffering of Germans’. The same imagery was used in 2005 by Dresden’s anti-Nazis protesting ‘Diese Stadt hat Nazis satt’ (This city is sick and tired of Nazis).
The Hermann Clausen entry in the German Wikipedia, perhaps to misguidedly bolster the photographer’s standing, claims that ‘few German photographers documented the destruction of the cities’. In fact Clausen was one among many professional and amateur photographers, German and foreign who did so, including August Sander, Herbert List and Richard Peter, whom I’ve mentioned, and Henry Ries, Edmund Kesting, Kurt Schaarschuch, and Walter Hege, though all mainly postwar. Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White also documented the damage and destruction of Berlin on assignment for American magazines in August 1945, as did Capa’s European colleagues Werner Bischof, David ‘Chim’ Seymour and Ernst Haas.
Claasen is distinguished because he started his Trümmerfotografie during the conflict, at risk of prosecution as an enemy collaborator.
Let us leave the archaeologists to decipher ruins and children to dance on the graves of the artillerymen.