10 January: Proletariat

Date #10Is evidence of its authorship embedded in a photograph?

Heinrich Rudolf Zille born on this date in 1858 (d.1929) in Radenburg near Dresden in Germany is famous, though unless you live in Berlin, you may not have heard of him. An artist, lithographer, cartoonist and lecturer, his street photography is among early examples but was almost unknown until rediscovered in the 1960s.

What is noteworthy about them is that they are the work of a man of the proletariat who photographed fellow Berliners of that demographic. They are contemporary with the candid photographs that Paul Martin made on the London streets using a hidden camera.

Paul Martin (c.1890) Blind beggar at the cattle market. Platinum print 18 x 22.8 cm Victoria and Albert Museum. Courtesy Luminous Lint.

Both arrived at photography through their work as part of the vast army of people illustrating the popular picture press, Martin as an engraver, and Zille as a lithographer, a profession suggested to him by Max Libermann.

Both started photographing well before Lewis Hine (1874 – 1940) and about the same time as Jacob Riis (1849 – 1914), also a newspaper employee and at one time the owner of the News who had started his well-known project How the Other Half Lives in the tenements of New York with an eighteen-page article in the Christmas 1889 edition of Scribner’s Magazine.

Jacob Riis. “How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements,” wood engravings from photographs, Scribner’s Magazine, December 1889. Library of Congress

Zille was celebrated in his own lifetime (he died in 1929) as a cartoonist and graphic artist and with the post-war division of Berlin and start of the Cold War his reputation was claimed by the communist state. He lay claim to the working-class  subjects of the poorest districts of north and east Berlin,  as ‘Mein Milljöh’ (My Milieu), justifiable because of his origins in a modest provincial family of Saxony who, to escape his watchmaker father’s debts, had migrated to the city in 1867 just as did millions of others to live in the then densest concentration of tenements in Europe amongst which they found a basement near the Silesian train station. At nine years old, and with his father back in jail, he earned a living  delivering newspapers and running messages, quickly familiar with ‘Dark’ Berlin of the rapidly developing civil servants and industrial city.

Ignoring his father’s advice to be come a butcher, in the 1870s he used his skill in drawing to train and got work at the Photographische Gesellschaft, specialists in popular reproductions of artwork, and began exhibiting his own work in the form of drawings and prints in 1901. Zille was encouraged exhibit in the Berlin Secession recently established in 1898 by Max Liebermann and sculptor friends August Gaul and August Kraus, both of whom were members and there he exhibited alongside others who so vividly depicted the proletariat, Hans Baluschek and Käthe Kollwitz, and illustrators of urban life like Theophile Steinlen and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Unlike Kollwitz, Zille’s imagery rattles with the same ironic laughter as did his poverty-stricken urban subjects in confronting their sorry lot.

Heinrich Zille (1922) Zirkus auf dem Hinterhof (Circus in the backyard)

Zille followed the Photographische company in 1892 to new quarters in increasingly bourgeoise Charlottenburg in NW Berlin, the population of which tripled between 1890 and 1920. 

He established his young family there, where he spent the rest of his life, climbing socially above his original ‘milieu’ but, following his sacking from the Photographische Gesellschaft and his subsequent career as an illustrator, he continued to cultivate an identity as a proletarian artist, albeit one that drew on his own hard experience and genuine empathy. 

Zille family in the Charlottenburg apartmen
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Zille family in their Charlottenburg apartment
Mein Photo-Milljoh
Heinrich Zille; Friedrich Luft (1967) Mein Photo-Milljöh : 100 x Alt-Berlin. Publ. Hannover : Fackelträger-Verl. Schmidt-Küster, 1967

Interestingly, in 2013, Dresden photographer Detlef Zille (not related to Heinrich) published a thesis that fiercely disputes that Heinrich ever was a photographer, against the view expressed in Berlin Theater critic Friedrich Luft‘s publication of the first 120 images discovered, in his Mein Photo-Milljöh, and artist Matthias Flügge‘s  Das dicke Zillebuch, curation of two large Zille exhibitions in 1996 and 2008, and a catalog raisonné of the prints.

He dismisses daughter Margarete Köhler-Zille’s memories of her father taking pictures, attacks the credentials and motives of authors of books on the Zille photo archive, finds inadequate written evidence, implies that the discovery of the negatives in the apartment of the artist’s step-grand-son was fabricated for financial gain, and obliquely insinuates that some may have been ‘flea-market finds.’

Is this a case of stubborn denialism? As Aaron Scharf has shown in his 1968 Art and Photography, with others since corroborating, there is a common resistance amongst painters, and their biographers  and descendants, to admit a resort to photography, or at least keep it a ‘trade secret’ — witness the apoplectic tantrums of certain art historians around David Hockney‘s Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters. His reputation as Heinrich “The Brush” Zille was too good to endanger with any hint that he might resort to mechanical aids!

The proof of course was always there in the photographs themselves, the cache of over four hundred glass negatives and approximately one hundred and twenty original prints discovered in his estate in 1966. They are dated 1882 – 1907, when Heinrich Zille would have learned to operate copy cameras and darkroom at the Photographische Gesellschaft, and had opportunity to process his negatives and the contact prints which survive. 

In 1987 the Berlinische Galerie succeeded in acquiring Zille’s entire photographic estate, 152 original prints and more than twice as many glass negatives,  and all can be freely viewed there online, which I have done in preparing this post. The Galerie commissioned photographers Michael Schmidt and Manfred Paul to make new prints in 1993/94, boosting the entire Heinrich Zille collection to 628 records, though it includes 85 photographs that they identify as by an ‘unknown photographer’ but which Zille kept.

Heinrich Zille (after 1893) view from the window of the Charlottenburg apartment to the southwest (Zeno photography)

The subject matter is clearly linked to Zille’s interests. A view from the apartment window shows an open vista across a sandy plain toward the Ringbahn (railway) with the Knobelsdorff Bridge to the southwest as early as 1893.

Four years later, and we are with him as he photographs back toward his apartment (below the arrow)


The women in the foreground of his photograph are labouring to push a converted pram through the sand and tracks left by others doing the same; carting sticks from the distant Spandauer forest to use for heating and cooking in their tenement, or to sell.

Screen Shot 2022-01-12 at 12.21.30 pm
Map of Charlottenburg in 1900, showing the West End location of the Zille apartment from which they had a view to the east.

Like the washing strung in the open space below his window, these women and their labour presents a subject that clearly fascinated Zille, one depicted in his cartoons and prints.

Screen Shot 2022-01-10 at 6.24.51 pm
Heinrich Zille (1895) Autumn. Original etching (etching and aquatint in brown black on yellowish vellum. 13.8 x 23 cm
group of brushwood collectors before Westend colony-Enhanced
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Brushwood collectors approaching Westend (image flipped horizontally for comparison with etching)

Would it matter if someone else took this picture to his instructions? Hardly; isn’t the cinema director who never uses the camera still accepted as the author of their films? Aside from the thumbprints embedded in their rather hastily developed emulsion, that it was he who was behind the camera there is other evidence fixed in this sequence of rapidly exposed glass plates. 

2 women with kindling cart #1
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Two women with kindling-filled cart
2 women with kindling cart #2
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Two women with kindling-filled cart

Here’s Zille drinking with a gravel-pit watchman. Clearly this is made with a bulb release with the camera resting on a convenient flat surface for the long exposure with light entering the doorway which is reflected as a square in the glass of the bottles; it’s not lit with flash powder and its evident that there is not another photographer present since the other man looks in the direction of Zille.

gravel pit keeper in his hat, with Heinrich Zille-Enhanced
Heinrich Zille (c.1900) Gravel pit keeper in his hut with Zille (right)

That characteristic fedora and that bulky Falstaffian figure reappears in the final shot of the brush-hauling sequence; as a shadow, head tilted downward.

2 Women with kindling cart #3
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Two women with kindling-filled cart

1468985611_2e2880749b_oThe box camera he is evidently using, is of a common type that Zille like any middle-class Berliner could easily afford to buy for himself. The horizon crosses the hips of the two harnessed figures, so we know the camera is being held at waist level.

It’s a falling-plate camera, of the American Conley ‘Quick Shot’ type, with a magazine of twelve 3 1/4 × 4 ¼ inch glass plates in the same format and dimensions used by Zille, and which could be used to quite rapidly expose a series of shots.

While it had simple little ‘brilliant’ viewfinders for either landscape or portrait orientation (note their position on the box) the camera body had to be turned to vertical in order to flip down the exposed plate in its holder that was hinged across the short side, for each exposure. That may account for the left-tilting slanting horizon common to so many of Zille’s pictures, where he has brought the camera back not quite to horizontal after advancing plates, since it was hard to orient with the primitive viewfinder. If he forgot to turn the knob for a fresh plate, this double-exposure is what would result; in this case the building facade and cathedral steeples being superimposed.

Kauernder Mann in front of a house entrance
Heinrich Zille (c.1900) Exhausted man crouching in the doorway of a house.

Zille,_Heinrich_-_Rummel,_Bedürfnis_(Zeno_Fotografie)Zille,_Heinrich_-_Rummel,_Gespannte_Zuschauer_(Zeno_Fotografie)We see Zille closing in on his subject as he walks, as here in a pair of shots showing a young woman first holding a baby as it urinates on the ground behind the crowd enjoying a sideshow (realist humour he repeats in an image of his son pissing against a fence).

Walter Zille peeing on a board wall

He shows her then as she stands, babe in arms, enjoying the entertainment. And there is that bulky male shadow again, this time hatless. Has he stopped out of curiosity about her, and she perhaps, intrigued by “Original Australians”

Original Australians-Enhanced
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Carnival booth showing supposed ‘Original Australians’

Also consistent in the majority of the Zille street photographs is that they were made with a fixed-focus lens, which results in his selected motif often being out-of-focus, as here, where the floral dress and the basket weave of the middle ground is sharp but the stripes of the pregnant woman’s skirt in the foreground is out-of-focus. The lively boys are blurred due to the longer exposure time needed to compensate for the desired depth-of-field.

Friedrich-Karl-Platz, northwest side 1898-Enhanced
Heinrich Zille (1898) Market, Friedrich-Karl-Platz, northwest side.

There are distinct parallels between the locations of the photographs and the places his artworks depict, even those so obscure, unattractive and of interest to no other photographer, such as this rubbish dump which he has transplanted close to Knobelsdorff Bridge in the drawing. 

Dump Zille,_Heinrich_-_Ungewohnter_Blick_auf_Gewohntes,_Müllhalde_in_Charlottenburg_(Zeno_Fotografie)
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) Garbage dump in Charlottenburg
Heinrich Zille (1895) Muellsammler (Garbage Collector). Drawing and watercolour

Furthermore, there is the attention paid to children in so many of these photographs, a subject matter that is a major percentage of Zille’s oeuvre. 

children on the Knobelsdorffbrücke, view towards Charlottenburg-Enhanced
Heinrich Zille (after 1893) children on the Knobelsdorffbrücke, view towards Charlottenburg

Here again, the same back focus too and the stains and unevenness of hasty processing, and the same format, just cropped square to cut out a stray finger over the lens.

Zille is a cartoonist, draughtsman, printmaker and painter first and foremost. Technically, the quality of  his street photographs is handicapped by his amateur equipment and his undervaluing them, but there are amongst his archive some made with a larger camera and again, the subject matter is children, this time posing more formally for him. 

Heinrich Zille (c.1896) First courtyard in Krögel with posing children, view from the second courtyard

It is also a location of high interest to him; one of the poorest streets in Berlin in which craft families shared the single building built over a channel into the Spree, from which their water was drawn. Note the correct verticals of the buildings in the photograph and the high vanishing point just left of the head of the most distant man, signifying the use of a tripod needed for the larger camera and negative, at 8″ x 10″ (26.7 x 20 cm). It is such images, given their inconsistency with the majority, that one might just argue were taken by a professional for Zille, but that would give his photography secret away. I can find just one of his cartoons, one from his last years, in which a camera plays a role.

…which may be interpreted..Landlady: “What’s going on with Lotte, Doctor!” [Medical student lodger]: “It’s almost ready, Mother Hurkauff, your Little Lottie wants to have an authentic picture and not the kitsch from the department store.”

Malcolm Gee in his 2008 “Heinrich Zille and the politics of caricature in Germany 1903-1929” (Etudes Balkaniques) provides the most incisive English language summation of Zille and his context. Of the artist’s late career he notes;

His contribution to the special issue of Simplicissimus on Berlin in 1926 was a bar scene that could have been from before the war, in contrast to those of the journal’s principal illustrators, each of whom represented a different aspect of the harsh, brash, contemporary city. Karl Arnold, who had begun a series of ‘Berlin pictures’ in the journal in 1921, included Zille himself in the collection of Berlin types that he presented here. In this vignette a reluctant looking artist is proferred a box of cigars by a corpulent, complacent bourgeois and his smart female companion: ‘Do take a fresh Havana Master Zille. You’ve given us so much pleasure with your tarts and paupers.’ Zille cited this ironic portrayal in a regretful note on the impact of his work, reproduced in ‘Für Alle!. ‘I was ashamed, because it was true.’

Zille’s art, however authentic, can be seen now, against that of fellow exhibitors in 1912 and 1917 Max Beckmann, Franz Heckendorf, Ferdinand Hodler, Vincent van Gogh, Ernst Barlach, Erich Heckel, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Liebermann, Willy Jaeckel, Dora Hitz, and Edvard Munch, or George Grosz later, as complicit in a nostalgie de la boue, the guts of the gutter played for guttural guffaws. Indeed his erotica indulges in the sordid pleasures of ‘slumming it,’ with some of his images of naked children verging on child porn.

As a sociological record these photographs serve higher, and lasting, purpose. One would ignore their contents, style and technique to try to prove they were not made by Heinrich Zille; that is a folly much more problematic than to accept that they are of his eye.

One thought on “10 January: Proletariat

  1. The serendipity of the double exposure shot is great! Elevates it to another level. It’s one of the great things about photography – the power of the medium to transcend the abilities or awareness of the photographer.

    Liked by 1 person

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