May 7: Is there a national photography?
One would be led to think there could be, with the appearance over a couple of decades of a series of well illustrated books by authoritative writers and editors from Reaktion, a UK publisher.
They include Photography and Australia (2007) by our own Professor Helen Ennis, who is Emeritus Professor in the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University, and formerly Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia (1985-1992). Other titles cover Photography and Ireland, Photography and China, Photography and Egypt, Photography and Italy, and so on.
I don’t often review books on this blog, especially a couple of years after publication, but Andrés Mario Zervigón, Professor of the History of Photography at Rutgers State University of New Jersey, helpfully addresses my question “Is there a national photography?” in Photography and Germany (2017) which I have just purchased and read.
Germany is a useful case study in the consideration of photography and nationalism, since it became a nation after unification in 1871, when photography was well established.
He proposes that photography played a part in establishing national identity for an Empire that had arisen from the amalgamation of (mostly) German-speaking states including Prussia, Bavaria, Saxony, Württemberg, Baden, Alsace-Lotharingia and twenty others ruled by royal families, including four kingdoms, six grand duchies, six duchies (five before 1876), seven principalities, three free Hanseatic cities, and one imperial territory. While High and Low German were the tongues of 90% of the population, tens of millions in the new nation spoke Polish. Religion formed another division, with most being Protestant in 1880, while half as many were Catholic, with regions being distinctly one or the other. Intermarriage and internal migration brought a little more homogeneity, but Catholicism was associated with the Polish citizens and worker-socialists in a politics which would play out with disastrous consequences in the new century.
The construction of the image of the German nation, as it emerges from Dr. Zervigón’s discussion, is a many-headed hydra of identities, not just of the state, but also of the medium itself, grafted onto the established root of photography. Throughout, in demonstration of the link between photography and nation he variously refers to the use of montage, and it is that, for the sake of brevity, on which I concentrate here.
Like America, Germany laid claim to photography, and yet both persisted in using Daguerre’s invention into the 1860s when other countries had moved on to newer technologies. The Americans declared some ‘firsts’, but, as Zervigón points out in his first chapter ‘Belated Photography’ devoted to the pre-unification period, one German, the painter Friederike Wilhelmine von Wunsch contended in 1839 that she had already invented the ‘Lichtbild’, though she was unable to offer any proof. More certain is Johann Heinrich Schulze‘s (1687–1744) proof of the photosensitivity of silver nitrate in 1717, though he left it to Niépce, Daguerre and Fox Talbot to turn that into photography.
Zervigón, who frequently refers to the burgeoning of German photographs as a ‘sea of emulsion’ might also have mentioned an 1833 claim by the obscure clergyman Philipp Hoffmeister (1804–1874), and the discovery of bromine by Carl Jacob Löwig (1803 –1890) in 1825 which produces one of the silver halides, or even that experiments with photosensitive chemicals, including silver nitrate had been carried out as early as the 13th century by German Catholic Dominican friar and bishop Albertus Magnus (c. 1193–1280).
But that is to nit-pick an ambitious historical survey of 180 years that in only 200 or so pages so concisely splices German and photographic history. Issues of Prussian dominance and of Catholic dissent, of the German claim to the Gothic style in architecture, the emerging middle-class and Biedermeier austerity, early photographic tourism, and the decisive role of the Franco-Prussian War in sealing unification; all are dealt with in the first chapter. We are guided through history via astute discoveries using photographic evidence, even though much is but subtle, by an historian who has published, inter alia, on photography and architecture. His drawing together of the national significance of Köln Cathedral, and of the large numbers of clergy missing from Johann Heninrich Schönscheidt‘s (1835–1903) 15 October 1880 picture of Kaiser Wilhelm inaugurating the cathedral, is just one demonstration of his acute observations.
A persistent thread is the author’s interest in photomontage, examples of which can be found in every chapter. An example, Johann Anselm Heinrich Schnäbeli‘s 1871 Wilhelm I in his study in Versailles, which Zervigón dubs “an assembly of national fantasy” and “a nationalist potpourri”, opens the second chapter which covers the period from 1871 and unification.
Though it is not mentioned in Photography and Germany, the montage into which the emperor-to-be has been inserted, along with a map-laden table, captured French standards and a carpet bearing iron crosses, is the product of a photographer well used to manipulating his photographs of champion livestock and racehorses, necessary because they are hard to group photogenically with owners and trainers. His task was made easier with the advent of glass negatives than were the efforts his British precursor in montage, Oscar Rejlander who combined images some twenty years earlier using the paper calotype.
The stereo image below proves that Schnäbeli (or Schnaebeli) was indeed present at Versailles, and evidently could have photographed the components of the skilfully constructed scene above, no photographer was present when then many princes of the German states united in making Wilhelm I their leader; it was in any case not a singular event.
The chapter discusses the symbolism in Schnäbeli’s laborious reconstruction of the unphotographed event and its context in an album of imagery around the the Proclamation of the German Empire in the Palace of Versailles;
“The resulting pictures, much like Wilhelm 1 in His Study at Versailles demonstrate that visions of unification could be as constructed as the German nation itself, and the fissures and seams just as retouched and off-scale. Yet both creations could be accepted as natural and authentic.” Photography and Germany, p.48.
It also details the German technical advances that permitted other photography of the unseeable; Röntgen‘s X-ray, and Anchütz‘s fast-shutter captures of wildlife, but also the imagery of seances and mediums faked with in-camera or darkroom manipulation, which segues into a discussion of a German manifestation of Pictorialism in Heinrich Kühn‘s glowing nostalgic representations of the disappearing peasant class to be followed by photographic revelations of the new urban poor commissioned by Albert Kohn along the lines of Danish American Jacob Riis‘ documentation of urban slums in New York a decade earlier.
The format of the Reaktion series and its intended audience requires such telescoping of a large span of history and a semi-journalistic approach, of which Zervigón creates an engaging read by connecting his history with a vivid selection of pictures, most of them unfamiliar to his readers.
Some episodes are necessarily skipped over; in fact the well-known story of Germany’s instigation of ”The War To End All Wars” is barely noted, bar the postcards into which individual soldiers’ faces where printed, before it is over. His portrayal in chapter 3 of the Weimar republic begins with the discovery by its citizens, in Zervigón’s recount, that WW1 had been misrepresented to them in a series of photographic falsehoods. He might have mentioned in that regard, but does not, the sanitised depictions of neat, skilfully-constructed trenches (above) manned by soldiers in immaculate uniforms by Hans Hildenbrand (1870–1957) in his Autochrome series made of German combatants in France. We are shown a pre-war postcard of the face of Kaiser Wilhelm II made by lithographer Rudolf Sternad (1880–1945) from an earlier portrait (above left) by court photographer Emil Bieber (1878-1962). Of this Zervigón remarks:
“One litho-photographic postcard perfectly symbolizes [Kaiser Wilhelm II’s] role of the Volkskaiser. Composed of photo-lithographic fragments, the picture depicts the ruler as the mirror image of the nation, his head and collar reflecting the achievements of his 25 years of service. His chin and moustache show his 1890 acquisition of the North Sea archipelago Heligoland, and his collar the 1895 opening of the North-East Sea Canal. These achievements were seemingly the products of his direct appeals to the public. Here they constituted the modern country as much as the kaiser’s increasingly self-fashioned public persona”
While this image is heavy-handedly edited and didactic, a lithograph which turns the haughty gaze of the photograph toward its owner’s Volk for their adoration, it joins several revelatory portraits selected for the book that prompt a reader’s cross-referencing of returning themes and their elaboration in the text.
Sternad’s reworking of Bieber’s portrait also points the way toward uses of montage in the Weimar era that are distinctly German innovations. In this chapter, Zervigón’s prose is particularly cogent, bringing into play research that contributed to his 2012 John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage and Photography and Doubt (2017) as well as his current book project, a critical history of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung or AIZ (‘Worker’s Illustrated Magazine’), in order to highlight the ambivalence toward a medium that had been used to hoodwink “…citizens [for whom], fed on a diet of photographically illustrated magazines and postcards [he harks back to the above example] celebrating the latest German military successes, the country’s defeat came as a complete surprise“.
This third chapter is titled The Weimar Republic and Photo-consciousness, 1919-1932 and draws on several publications critical of the ‘lies’ told through the use of photography, opening with left-wing publisher Wili Münzenberg‘s complaint of 1931 that with…
“…a combination of several pictures with their captions and accompanying text, a skilful editor can reverse the significance of any photograph and influence a reader who lacks the political sophistication in any direction he chooses”
Thus, consideraton of news photography and photojournalism, which tend to be underplayed elsewhere in the book, comes into full play here, and appropriately so, given that German magazines and newspapers of the period were in the vanguard of the use of such illustration, later to be imitated in the UK, France and USA which were the refuge for media talent escaping the looming totalitarianism.
Another purpose of this review (and this entire blog) is to improve my own expression, and the writing of this and the following chapter is exemplary. At first it sets up a to-and-fro contention between perceptions of truth and falsehood in photography played out between contemporary commentators and actualities in the B-I-Z of the right, and A-I-Z of the left, then culminates in a staccato passage on page 95 devoted to the politically purposeful chaos of Dada’s cutting and pasting of news pictures as a reflection of a society in crisis. Zervigón then presents as its antithesis the Neue Sachlichkeit, which he describes in more measured prose and to which he recruits August Sander‘s ‘exact photography’, and Karl Blossfeldt‘s turn of the century teaching aids which were admired and published during this period (though his assertion that Blossfeldt’s subtle retouching was to render them Neue Sachlichkeit is not borne out in Hanako Murata‘s Material Forms in Nature: The Photographs of Karl Blossfeldt that he cites). The familiar story of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy‘s Das Neue Sehen and collaboration on the photogram with his wife Lucia Schulz he recounts with equal verve, and accordingly from here his inclusion of women photographers is more even-handed as some such as ringl+pit and Yva (Else Ernestine Neuländer-Simon) come to prominence, applying ‘new seeing’ to advertising, but sadly photomontagist Alice Lex-Nerlinger is not included.
Here, against the rise of photo-book monographs, illustrated magazines and exhibitions, is noted the commentary on the now ubiquitous medium by Sigfried Krackauer, Benjamin, Lou Märtens, Gertrud Alexander, Franz Roh and Werner Graeff, while Bildemüde (‘image-fatigue’) threatens amongst its audience exposed to too much vertigo in radical modernist imagery (of which Willi Ruge‘s aerobatic exertions might have provided an example par excellence, had they been included).
Right where we expect the unspooling of a familiar tragedy, comes an acute transition between the third chapter and the fourth, The Alluring Surface 1933-1945.
It sets the ultra-modernist Film und Foto against Hitler’s first embrace of the medium—his oratory portraits by Heinrich Hoffmann, and the National Socialist exploitation of Hoffmann’s panoramic mural photographs of Hitler rallies in the huge 1933 trade show Die Kamera. Such uses escalate modern photomontage in their hateful propaganda of Der ewe Jude (‘The Eternal Jew’) that toured the country in 1937-8.
Enlarged looming faces of significant Jewish medical scientists, thinkers and writers were set on black-painted curved walls covered in propagandistic slogans to arch threateningly over the viewer, and were combined with an occult installation of skeletons holding candelabra and surrounding a coffin.
The chapter also looks at the everyday under National Socialism as represented by the pictorial press, including domestic journals like B-I-Z, and internationally distributed propaganda magazines like Signal.
We see Heinrich Hoffman’s series of books devoted to Hitler’s activities as Fuhrer, and the kitsch and often anti-semitic photography of Nazi party member Max Ehlert, and portraits of ‘Aryan’ faces commissioned from Erna Lendvai-Dircksen and published in multiple volumes of Der deutsche Volksgesicht (‘Face of the German Volk’) in 1932 with racist tracts that serve here as a more sinister counterpoint to Sanders’ Antlitz der Zeit. Sechzig Aufnahmen deutscher Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Industrial photography by Albert Renger-Patsch and others is recruited to the purpose of asserting German manufacturing dominance overseas.
Vernacular photography is used to convey the complicity of the common citizen or soldier in acts of victimisation, repression and genocide before the last section Defeat, Horror and Shame, shows how the cameras of the victorious Allies, in the hands of Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller, and an uncredited but powerful US armed forces photo, expose hideous war crimes and show the confrontation of the perpetrators with these horrors. These come as a reminder that this is an American’s history of German photography who is more historian than photographer, as his contortions over Bourke-White’s camera angles, and persistent use of the derogatory ‘snap’, attest.
The penultimate chapter deals with the years 1946-1989 during which National Socialism was replaced by a Germany split asunder as evident in German ambivalence between regret, anger and self-pity around Trümmerfotographie, before returning to manifestations of the photomontage in advertising and art icontrasting Dada-ist borrowings in a Franz Hubmann advertisement for Zeiss Ikon against a Bernd and Hiller Becher typological array of industrial cooling towers both from West Germany with, from the East, Sybille Bergmann, Evelyn Richter, Arno Fischer and Helga Paris who employed documentary means, the latter in a ‘typology ‘of longitudinal self portraits that reveal “the possibilities and the limits of self-fashioning in the East German state’.
Art photography is shown to be a largely clandestine in East Germany, while the West embraced the non-objective style of ‘Subjective Photography’ led by Otto Steinert that “used the Weimar-era heritage of modernism” to “reject the stifling socialist realism enforced the East” and “to pursue an autonomous artistic expression”.
The final chapter affirms the retrospective tendency of contemporary German photography, from photography historian Rudolph Herz‘ harsh rendition of the iconoclasm committed on display photographs by visitors to the Dachau concentration camp museum, to his later pairing of two portraits.
They happen to have been made by Hitler’s publicist Heinrich Hoffmann of the Fuhrer and, much earlier, of Dada maestro Marcel Duchamp. Herz exercises the rubber-stamp Hoffmann style as applied to two diametrically opposite iconic individuals. Installed in a chessboard tiling of large screen prints that wallpaper the gallery, similarity swamps the underlying ideologies. Thomas Demand reconstructs the room in which an assassination of Hitler was attempted. Sybille Bergmann‘s series The Monument presents other icons in public East German sculpture that appears to be in the process of destruction, but in fact were made for an offical commission to document their construction. The raised arms of Andreas Gursky‘s panoramic Tote Hosen (2000) concert crowd look uncomfortably like Nazi salutes, again reprising Hoffmann. The Photography and Germany cover image by Dresden-born Loretta Lux, The Drummer (2004), which like Gursky’s is quite an early digital manipulation, also recalls National Socialism in its reminder for Zervigón of Günther Grass’ unreliable narrator of his The Tin Drum (1959).
A book like this, resplendent with strategically chosen, powerful imagery, is in itself a work of photomontage. It closes with the provocative pairing of Wolfgang Tilmans‘ 1997 Kneeling Nude and Joachim Schmidt‘s double-page spread Currywurst from his book Other People’s Photographs 2008-11. The phallic/coprophagic symbolism of masturbating boy (whose chained nipples recall the swag of medals on the chest of Kaiser Wilhelm I in an 1880 carte-de-visite way back on page 60), and the brown-sauce sausages, leaves one with a sense that Zervigón, after his extensive research into them and their photography, might share Lee Miller’s feelings for the Germans.
Lately, nationalism is a vexed issue, and Zervigón’s book gives us a valuable photographic perspective against which to consider it.