The Photography of Crisis
The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany
Daniel H. Magilow
The Photography of Crisis
The Photo Essays of Weimar Germany
Daniel H. Magilow
“As an introduction to the field and a bold statement of the photo-essay’s central significance, Magilow’s book is a valuable piece of scholarship.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
“As an introduction to the field and a bold statement of the photo-essay’s central significance, Magilow’s book is a valuable piece of scholarship.”
“The Photography of Crisis is the first full account of the photo essay as a ubiquitous presence in Weimar culture and a driving force behind the visual turn in German modernism. Daniel Magilow’s examination of new text-image relations in the illustrated press and the photobook not only complicates traditional accounts of avant-garde photography and modern photojournalism but also allows us to situate the famous photographers August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch within the emerging logics of visuality, physiognomy, and shock that would continue to haunt photography throughout the twentieth century. This book is required reading for all photo historians and scholars of modern visual culture.”
“[The Photography of Crisis] is a thoughtfully and elegantly argued contribution to Weimar photo history.”
Daniel H. Magilow is Associate Professor of German at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.
List of Illustrations
Introduction: The Photography of Crisis
1 The New Receptivity and the New Photographer
2 The Illustrated Press and the Photo Essay
3 The Modernist Photobook: The Nature of Nature
4 Photographic Physiognomies: Diagnosing Germanness
5 The Snapshot and the Moment of Decision
Epilogue: Crisis, Photographed
The Photography of Crisis
The Visual Turn and the Photo Essays of Weimar Germany
A 1932 photograph of a newsstand on Berlin’s Kaiserallee by Friedrich Seidenstücker presents not only a typical view of modern city life but also the setting, plot, and characters of a critical drama of modern media and cultural history (fig. 1). Throughout his sixty years as a professional photographer in Berlin, Seidenstücker captured scenes of German culture in flux. At the time he took this photograph, newsstands like these had become regular features of the urban street. Corner kiosks sold tabloid-format newspapers and magazines well suited for easy reading during the commute on Berlin’s rapidly growing and increasingly crowded subway. Seidenstücker’s newsstand overflows with newspapers and magazines—966, according to the photograph’s caption—but even so, it probably did not stand out too much amid the booming street culture of Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s. To the contrary, it surely fit in seamlessly with the myriad surfaces of modern urban life: the ubiquitous signs and advertisements, many in flashy typefaces or neon; the enticing shopwindows with dioramas of the latest modern conveniences; and movie theaters so self-consciously decadent that they were called palaces. Were it not for Seidenstücker’s decision to record this moment of daily life in the Weimar Republic—Germany’s short-lived and ultimately failed experiment in democracy from 1919 to 1933—this corner kiosk might simply have faded into history.
Yet Seidenstücker’s image also represents a dramatic juncture in German history. It captures a moment at the end of the Weimar Republic as Germany transitioned from an unstable democracy with fierce ideological divisions and a teeming culture into a one-party society that embraced war and ultimately genocide. In a crude sense, the newsstand looks like a kind of theater. Its columns, racks, and piles of newspapers and periodicals create a proscenium. Recessed layers of periodicals form an orchestra pit and stage covered by a curtain of illustrated newspapers. A bystander within the image and viewers outside of it together stand in for both anxious German audiences of the early 1930s and a posterity still curious about the drama whose outcome became the twentieth century’s focal point. Even the newsstand’s location on Berlin’s imperially named Kaiserallee (Emperor’s Avenue) points to a broader historical drama: today, that same avenue carries the decidedly less imperial name Bundesallee (Federal Avenue). What exactly was this drama that took place toward the end of the Weimar Republic, and how does Seidenstücker’s image of a crowded Berlin newsstand offer a new entry point into it? What is it about photography, in other words, that distinctively helps us investigate the political, aesthetic, and social crises of Weimar Germany? At least in part, the answers lie in the publications that the photograph depicts, for they form both this drama’s medium and its message.
One might better understand the moment and broader context that Seidenstücker captured by reading the photograph as his contemporary Siegfried Kracauer might have. To the journalist and cultural critic Kracauer, photography is photography not because of what it depicts—here, a newsstand on a city street—but by virtue of what it interrupts—in this case, the sensory overload of modern city space. In this light, Seidenstücker’s photograph embodies a series of conflicts precisely because it is a photograph: it records the fast pace of Weimar modernity in a medium that, through its muteness and paralysis, forms the antithesis of modernity’s intensified nervous stimulation. Or as Eduardo Cadava has put it, “The significance of photography lies not with its ability to reproduce a given object, but rather with its ability to tear it away from itself.” We observe in Seidenstücker’s image the paradoxical notion of a frozen moment of a culture in flux. In 1932, Germany was mired in the depths of the Great Depression, and unemployment figures reached their peak of more than six million that year. Meanwhile, street clashes between Communists and National Socialists produced what one commentator called a “schleichender Bürgerkrieg” (creeping civil war). Yet in this photograph, Weimar Germany’s fast pace, its thrills, its energy, but also its chaos and crises, grind to a standstill.
Seidenstücker’s newsstand represents one of the most important sites where German thinkers established Weimar Germany’s lasting cultural legacy. Public intellectuals such as Kracauer published not only books, novels, and academic studies but also articles, essays, and feuilletons in the specialized and mass media. Kracauer developed his theories about mass culture’s effects on the middle class both in books such as Die Angestellten (The Salaried Masses) and in the feuilletons he published as the film critic for the Frankfurter Zeitung. In addition to book-length works such as Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street) and Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), Walter Benjamin eked out a living through book reviews and articles that appeared in popular newspapers and literary reviews such as the Vossische Zeitung and Die Literarische Welt. Countless other examples attest to key intellectuals’ interest in shorter essayistic and journalistic forms. This interest transcended political boundaries: key right-wing figures also advanced ideas in book-length forms as well as in the journalistic realm. For instance, alongside Das abenteuerliche Herz (The Adventurous Heart) and Der Kampf als inneres Erlebnis (Struggle as inner experience)—two extended texts that glorified his experiences in World War I—Ernst Jünger spread his protofascist ideas in publications with provocative titles such as Das Reich (The empire), Widerstand: Zeitschrift für nationalrevolutionäre Politik (Resistance: Journal for national revolutionary politics), and Der Vormarsch: Blätter der nationalistischen Jugend (The forward march: Magazine of the nationalist youth). In short, the debates and arguments, as well as the street fights and riots, that pockmarked Weimar Germany’s politically fractured landscape replayed themselves not just in books, scholarly journals, and other traditional intellectual venues. They also took place in the rhetorical struggles on the pages of the popular press and in a diverse array of narrative photographic forms.
The publications on Seidenstücker’s newsstand are thus not significant merely because photographs appeared alongside their record of Weimar Germany’s key debates. Rather, they used photographs in new ways—in novel essayistic forms that did more than just illustrate the text. As the sites of political debate changed, so too did the forms in which those struggles unfolded. The turbulent final years of the Weimar Republic provided the stage for an important development in visual representation: the photo essay. The sequencing or arrangement of photographs to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, elicit narratives, evoke allegories, and persuade listeners to accept new ways of seeing and thinking had accompanied the medium since its origins in the early nineteenth century. But while the photo essay did not, strictly speaking, debut in Weimar Germany, the combination of text and image in a way that shifted the terms of their interaction found its first starring role there. Just as Germany’s most significant writers and thinkers advanced arguments in both the popular media and extended book-length works, so too did its most important photographers intervene in these same debates through the use of a variety of photo essay forms. Like their colleagues who published scholarly books as well as journalistic works, they published not only photo stories for the illustrated press but also longer book-length photo essays about more abstract philosophical and cultural concerns. In the late Weimar period, before television’s heyday, the photo essay flourished as a central, ideologically charged artifact.
Whereas for much of the nineteenth century, photography had been a technically complex activity associated with fine art, it had by this time become a practice in which a general, nonspecialist population could partake simply by depressing a button. Advances in printing technology had made it possible not only to reproduce photographs on paper but also to make thousands of copies of those images and disseminate them in books, newspapers, and advertisements to a new and increasingly urban mass market. As it became possible to produce photographs almost as easily as language, photographs took on new roles in original forms. To be sure, photography had never been limited exclusively to illustrating text. But the emergence of forms that more ambitiously replicated the functions and effects of traditional written language suggests that in the cultural crucible of Weimar Germany a significant and lasting shift occurred in how we understand text and image.
This book examines an especially significant moment of this visual turn—the development of the Weimar photo essay—through readings of several seminal works and examinations of the discursive contexts in which they appeared. The newspaper photo stories alluded to in Seidenstücker’s image as well as other forms, including portrait collections, book-length assemblages of nature photography, and experimental modernist photobooks, all reveal photography’s broad linguistic dimensions. Photographers could organize photographs with greater and lesser degrees of structure and use them to tell stories, make arguments, communicate ideas, and persuade listeners—such as the art critic—to see, think, and ultimately act in new ways. To the reader, student, and scholar of Weimar Germany today, the photo essay provides a unique lens through which to read, or rather reread, this tumultuous but exciting era in modern German history and to examine a profound sense of enthusiasm for a new representational technology.
If, as theorists ranging from the sociologist Georg Simmel to the German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin have suggested, modernity consists of a series of shock experiences, then the photo essay, which very literally depends on instantaneous clicks and exploding flash bulbs, allows modernity to illuminate itself by means of a form constructed from these very shocks. The photo essay opens up a critical period of German cultural history by utilizing one of that period’s unique forms of self-representation. We see this era’s dramas and crises “acted out” in photo essays, and, consequently, reading the photo essays from the later years of the Weimar Republic lets us excavate and reconstruct key debates with a level of detail unique to photography. We can then see how the ostensible “objectivity” of photographs in fact skewed and molded the ways in which audiences perceived the world around them.
By the mid- to late 1920s, German photographers, thinkers, and critics—clearly influenced by the ubiquity and popularity of such varied forms of narratively organized photography—commented explicitly on photography’s “language-like” abilities. In 1928, using the phrase that Walter Benjamin would later famously cite in “Little History of Photography,” the painter, photographer, and Bauhaus professor László Moholy-Nagy noted in his essay “Fotografie ist Lichtgestaltung” (Photography is design with light) that the illiterates of the future would be those who could not read images, rather than words. Writing in Das Kunstblatt (The art paper) in 1928, Johannes Molzahn, another painter and photography enthusiast, appealed to his readers with the title “Nicht mehr Lesen! Sehen!” (“Stop Reading! Look!”). He too highlighted photography’s affinities to written language by implying that photographs could do the work of written words. Benjamin, Moholy-Nagy, Molzahn, and many others demanded that photography not be defined and understood solely in opposition to painting or other art forms. Photography was not simply a form of painting for the artistically unskilled. Rather, it was to be understood in terms of its own capabilities and limitations as a medium—of which signification akin to writing was a part. In their own lifetimes, writers and photographers had seen this potential realized and exploited in entirely new ways. It was becoming clear that photography was coming into its own as a means of communication. In 1927, Albert Renger-Patzsch argued in the German photography annual Das Deutsche Lichtbild (The German photograph) that this uniquely modern medium must be understood on its own terms. “Let us . . . leave art to the artists,” he wrote, “and let us try to use the medium of photography to create photographs that can endure because of their photographic qualities—without borrowing from art.”
This book approaches this moment of the visual turn in German modernism with the fundamental premise that the diverse manifestations and subgenres of the photo essay in Weimar Germany were both a reflection of and contributor to the enormous changes in culture, society, and technology during this tumultuous period. As Pepper Stetler has eloquently argued with reference to photobooks, these forms “staged dialectics of unity and fragmentation, coherence and discord that were at the heart of visual experiences in the Weimar Republic.” But photo essays were not limited to art books. Different photo essay genres—whether one-page illustrated text-image news stories in illustrated magazines, nature photography anthologies, physiognomic portrait books, or experimental photo essays—did more than just document the complex dreams, aspirations, realities, and crises of Weimar Germany. German photo essays of the late 1920s and early 1930s blossomed as a distinctly modern, technologically inflected vehicle used by writers and photographers to participate in crucial aesthetic, political, and cultural debates. Yet for all of the familiar focus on Weimar cinema, scholarship has not paid nearly as much attention to photo essays, even though millions of readers encountered them in illustrated magazines and books and even though twenty periodicals (illustrated and otherwise) were sold for every movie ticket.
Toward a Definition of the Photo Essay
Many of the photo essay forms that this book documents and interprets have previously been examined individually—most often in the context of artworks by individual photographers—as examples of the burgeoning practice of photojournalism in illustrated magazines or as examples of the photobook. Scholarship has not, however, considered these ostensibly discrete photographic forms together as legitimate objects of comparison, because to today’s viewers they do not appear to be so similar. A one-page photoreportage with low-quality photographs printed in a disposable illustrated magazine may seem to have little in common with an experimental photobook published in a limited luxury edition. Yet contemporaries in Weimar Germany understood these varied forms of narrative photography as belonging to the same visual turn about which Benjamin, Moholy-Nagy, and Molzahn spoke. Writers, photographers, editors, and cultural commentators viewed the traffic in photographs and the new ubiquity of photographically illustrated books, magazines, advertisements, and other publications as, in one journalist’s words, “a sign of the times.” The photographers who published photobooks with more explicitly aesthetic pretensions regularly sold individual images to photographically illustrated magazines known as Illustrierten to be used in these publications’ own forays into narrative photography.
Moreover, these diverse photo essay forms evince shared concern with the pressing (and also not so pressing) political and social issues of their time and the optimistic view that photography could help resolve them: the fragility of Weimar democracy after the compounded crises of defeat in World War I, including political revolution and hyperinflation; the profound transformations of the natural world in the modern age; the perception that Germany faced a critical identity crisis of world-historical importance; and, of course, the manifold new forms of diversion and recreation available in a modernized world. Photographers with profoundly heterogeneous political and aesthetic leanings and thematic interests in Weimar Germany produced important works about a long list of important topics. The Bauhaus-trained photographer Moishe Vorobeichic reflected on the fate of Jews in the face of modernity and secularization in Vilna: Ein Ghetto im Osten (The Ghetto Lane in Vilna). Else Neuländer-Simon, working pseudonymously as Yva, composed picture stories for the culture magazine Uhu about changing gender roles and the figure of die Neue Frau (the New Woman). Essayist and satirist Kurt Tucholsky teamed with the Dadaist photomonteur John Heartfield to criticize rabid nationalism in Deutschland, Deutschland über alles. And architect Erich Mendelssohn dissected Germany’s love-hate relationship with America in Amerika: Bilderbuch eines Architekten (America: An Architect’s Picture Book). These examples—and there are many more—speak not only to the wide range of topics that photo essayists addressed; they also point to a new but, as we shall see, ultimately misguided confidence in the roles photo essays could play in shaping opinions in ways that words or images on their own did or could not. In photo essays, photographs may have functioned like written or spoken language, but as with written or spoken language, they could also be co-opted and misused.
Aside from their common historical origins and shared thematic interests, photo essays are also significant as a marker of an important aesthetic change more often considered in the context of written language. Like the major works by modernist authors such as Alfred Döblin, Marcel Proust, or James Joyce, narrative photography participated in modernism’s challenge to traditional modes of reading and understanding. The presence of photographs in print media demanded that audiences learn to read the pages in front of them in new ways. Regarding the relationship of text and image in interwar Europe, art historian Matthew S. Witkovsky has rightfully suggested that photo essays “shifted the traditional terms of their interaction.” The diverse photo essay forms of Weimar Germany are evidence of this shifting, which makes it possible to think about them together under an umbrella of conceptual unity that today may not seem as self-evident.
Many contemporaries indeed recognized such a shift. In the photobook Es kommt der neue Fotograf! (Here Comes the New Photographer!), Werner Graeff celebrated photography’s power in various fields of human endeavor, including art, science, journalism, and advertising. Assembled in connection with the Deutscher Werkbund’s 1929 Film und Foto (FiFo) exhibition—a retrospective look at the vast changes in visual culture in 1929—Graeff’s book also provided examples of distinct forms of photographic texts. Alongside examples of “art photography,” including camera-less photograms, photomontages, and sharply focused still lifes, Graeff singled out photography’s commercial and functional uses, especially in newspaper photoreportage, advertising, and propaganda. All of these forms appeared in a book that, as we shall see, self-referentially exemplified a broad-based and historically unprecedented openness on the part of photographers and readers to this modern medium’s myriad rhetorical possibilities. If we consider the photo essay and its constituent subgenres—both those today considered closer to art and those considered more akin to journalism—we can envisage how contemporaries understood these different kinds of photography. It also helps us grasp the photo essay’s development, including the new ubiquity of the photograph and the new receptivity to photography, as part of a broad-based cultural trend in Weimar Germany.
Whatever their physical appearance or aesthetic status today, Weimar photo essays share other significant affinities, particularly as commodities produced and consumed in a bustling consumer economy. The works of August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch offer two useful examples. Like many of the photographers known for their art books, both Sander and Renger-Patzsch were, in their “day jobs,” commercial photographers who took portraits (Sander) and photographed industrial objects (Renger-Patzsch) for clients, and they also sold photographs to image-hungry Illustrierten. Sander’s business correspondence contains exchanges with Peter Suhrkamp, the editor of the Ullstein publishing company’s culture magazine Uhu, that show he understood the various uses of his photographs, both in newspapers and in his photobook Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time), as interrelated and not mutually exclusive. Similarly, as part of the pre-Christmas marketing campaign for Die Welt ist schön (The World Is Beautiful), the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung published a short photo story with Renger-Patzsch’s photographs and a laudatory review by Thomas Mann on December 23, 1928. Such examples underscore the value of approaching the photobooks for which photographers are best known today alongside the other photo essay forms, including more ephemeral ones such as photoreportage, in which their work sometimes appeared. These varied photo essay forms were all part of a new traffic in photographs that revealed the thorough interconnectedness of the previously more autonomous realms of commercial photography and art photography. All were possible because of a new receptivity to, and new optimism about, mechanically produced imagery.
Scholarship has not generally considered the many interrelated but discrete photo essay genres with an eye to how they developed in the specific cultural-historical milieu of Weimar Germany. What has emerged instead is a scholarly literature that focuses more on individual photo essay subgenres than on their shared conceptual frameworks and historical commonalities. In other words, the focus tends to be on what photo essays mean today rather than on what they meant in their own time. For instance, the two-volume work The Photobook: A History, by Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, elides photo essay subgenres, including portrait books, anthologies, and literature/photography hybrids, framing them primarily as fetishizable objects for art-historical connoisseurship or aesthetic contemplation. Photo essays from Weimar Germany receive no special attention in spite of their influential and pioneering role in the form’s development. Parr and Badger define the photobook through references to other art forms such as the “literary novel” and as a work akin to the output of the cinematic auteur. Such scholarship, which also includes Andrew Roth’s The Book of 101 Books and The Open Book: A History of the Photographic Book from 1878 to the Present, often appears in the context of exhibition catalogues. This trend in scholarship demarcates the photobook as a discrete and aesthetically autonomous object. Such fetishistic interest in this type of photo essay derives more from an appreciation of photo essays’ physical form than from extensive interest in their conceptual unity. How these works functioned in their day as narratives is especially downplayed, oversimplified, or ignored.
Along similar lines, scholarship on photoreportage does not typically consider the interconnectedness of newspaper photo stories and photobooks. Discussion of the journalistic photo essay often appears in histories of a “golden age” of photojournalism, where it is understood in isolation and with a profound degree of nostalgia as a moment in the history of journalism that television and later the Internet have rendered quaintly anachronistic. Histories such as Tim Gidal’s firsthand accounts of the origins and evolution of modern photojournalism rightfully emphasize the novelty of photoreportage in Weimar Germany and the pioneering roles of certain figures. But they generally do not integrate the formal achievements of newspaper photo stories and their focus on using images to tell stories, construct arguments, and communicate into broader trends of narrative photographic forms and the profound enthusiasm for them in Weimar society. At the same time, these studies retroactively construct the world of interwar German photojournalism as an “all-boys club” of intrepid male reporters and downplay or completely ignore the contributions of Germaine Krull, Lotte Jacobi, Annelise Kretschmer, Alice Lex-Nerlinger, Else Neuländer-Simon (Yva), and other important women photographers. The gendered narrative of photojournalism would, decades later, have to be correctively reinscribed into the foundational story of Weimar photography.
Interpreting the Photo Essay
For all of the formal and thematic diversity apparent in the photo essay’s constituent subgenres, what unites these forms is not what they are as objects but what they do as forms of narrative. This naturally invites two questions: What do they in fact do (or, at least, what did they try to do) and how should one approach them? Just as modernist literature’s narrative strategies of interior monologues, collage, and self-reflexivity challenged traditional modes of reading, so too did photo essays make reading into an interactive endeavor resembling a kind of game. If the complicated and quasi-linguistic relationships between individual photographs and an entire photographic narrative presented new opportunities for authorial expression, they also challenged traditional modes of reading. Readers encountered photo essays in familiar venues, particularly in the popular press and in books that, through their formal novelty and thematic focus, demanded that they be read with attention to their proximate historical contexts. Photo essays structure relationships between their parts (individual photographs) and their whole (the entire narrative) with greater and lesser degrees of narrative unity. In some cases, as in photographic anthologies, subject matter presented in an introductory text creates structure by virtue of thematic commonalities. In illustrated magazines, commercial considerations such as advertising space, the need for attractive images, and even the boundaries of a tabloid-size page (or pages) condition the look and feel of individual photo stories. In still other cases, as in the photobooks Face of Our Time by Sander and The World Is Beautiful by Renger-Patzsch, subtle formal traits or narrative rhythms govern the sequencing of images, and textual accompaniment is relegated to short captions, checklists at the back of the book, or extended narrative introductions.
This diversity of narrative structures carries with it the demand to develop new modes of reading. This book takes as its interpretive approach to the Weimar photo essay a hermeneutic model that Walter Benjamin articulated in his Denkbild (thought figure) “Brezel, Feder, Pause, Klage, Firlefanz” (“Pretzel, Feather, Pause, Lament, Clothing”). Benjamin described a Biedermeier-era parlor game that offers a useful conceptual model for thinking about how, specifically, photo essays construct, reconfigure, and even resist our attempts to read and interpret them. In the parlor game, each player had to link a series of ostensibly unrelated words into a coherent sentence. The goal was to construct the shortest sentence possible out of the given words. Benjamin imagines the creative movement between these parts as a paradigm for all forms of reading and writing, noting that “in reality, something of this perspective is contained in every act of reading.” Photo essays complicate this further because they consist of another set of symbols—photographs—that have generated their own mythologies of straightforwardness and immediacy. Those symbols are inscribed, organized, or sequenced into an additional syntactic structure. Although composed of discrete images, this sum (the photo essay) is greater than its parts (photographs and words).
The entirety of the montage of images in a photo essay becomes what Umberto Eco has theorized as an “open work,” one that “produces in the interpreter acts of conscious freedom, putting him at the center of a net of inexhaustible relations among which he inserts his own form.” This new mode of textuality both invokes and differs from traditional forms of reading and writing. In their various guises, photographic narratives and sequences evoke explicit or implicit meanings for readers. The burden of interpreting those meanings falls to the readers, who must mediate a photograph’s denotative and connotative dimensions. With some photo essay genres—notably photo stories in illustrated magazines or explicitly didactic photobooks such as Graeff’s Here Comes the New Photographer!—titles, captions, accompanying articles, and introductory essays quickly constrain interpretive possibilities and elicit specific interpretations. With other forms, however, especially those in which images feature only captions, “overreading” emerges as a significant danger for photographic narratives. Photography criticism is particularly susceptible to accusations of what Colin Davis has termed “critical excess.” The reason for accusing critics of overreading rests largely on the received but misguided tendency to “underread” images—that is, to subscribe to the naïve rhetoric of photographic indexicality and transparency and the corollary belief that photographs do not require interpretation because they somehow “speak for themselves.” In other cases, the act of critical photographic interpretation is perceived as an affront to the beauty of the photograph as an artwork.
A final issue related to the method of interpreting diverse photo essay forms is that of nomenclature. Why is the form called a photo essay and not, for instance, as W. J. T. Mitchell asks, a “photo novel” or “photo lyric”? And what do such names imply? In posing this question, Mitchell rightfully stresses affinities between diverse photo essayistic forms (photoreportage, photobooks, anthologies) and the referential and experimental qualities of personal and informal essays. Mitchell notes that one typically encounters essays (traditional or photo) in the context of books, magazines, newspapers, or other print media. In that both written essays and photo essays emphasize private viewpoints, personal memories, and autobiographical concerns, a cultural history of the visual essay form is wise to combine “literary” or “textual” approaches with historical contextualization or photographic criticism. The generally reflective, subjective, and unsystematic nature of essays nevertheless poses very real difficulties for scholarship. Theodor Adorno suggested as much in “Der Essay als Form” (“The Essay as Form”) when he argued, “The essay . . . does not let its domain be prescribed for it.” Studies of the German essay tradition range from Ludwig Rohner’s multivolume attempt to establish a canon of German essays (on the one hand) to Adorno’s objection (on the other) that the object of evaluation will necessarily cause any such totalizing approach to fail. Writing a history of the photo essay presents similar challenges.
The enormous number of photo essays that appeared in Weimar Germany offers a rich corpus from which to choose examples of the form’s many manifestations and subgenres. This book offers a historically informed interpretive history of the Weimar photo essay based on close readings of examples by well-known photo essayists of the time. The subsequent chapters present analyses of their works, which speak to the diverse range of photo essayistic forms: photobooks marketed in connection with important art exhibitions that announced new roles for photography; photo stories about current events in Illustrierten, which became the public laboratories for experimentation with photographic narratives; portrait books that influenced intellectuals and public opinion; and photo essays that provided grist for propagandists across the political spectrum. Although one could easily include other works in lieu of or in addition to those addressed here, I have chosen instead to structure this cultural history of the Weimar photo essay in a manner similar to the form it analyzes: this study selects revealing examples from a larger corpus of texts and, like the player in the Biedermeier parlor game, navigates them in, one would hope, an interesting and elegant manner.
Chapters 1 and 2 present broader background on the aesthetic and cultural context of Weimar Germany through readings of photo essays that were explicit about their status as photographic narratives. Chapter 1 historicizes the controversies surrounding photography at the time by examining Graeff’s highly self-referential work Here Comes the New Photographer! Graeff’s popularization of the principles of the constructivist avant-garde movement known as the Neues Sehen (New Vision) stands out for many reasons. Most of all, it was a key indicator of the new receptivity to and optimism about the new photographic forms that became a hallmark of the visual culture of Weimar Germany. Graeff self-reflexively draws attention to his use of photography, but for more programmatic purposes. His book not only catalogues the various formal techniques that photographers used in photo essays but also directly refutes critics’ objections to photography. Graeff accomplishes these rhetorical goals performatively. In Here Comes the New Photographer! he does not simply advocate for photography; he uses a photographic narrative as his vehicle of choice for promoting a new medium and its communicative possibilities.
Chapter 2 examines the crucial intermediary space between still images and book-length photo essays: the popular photo stories of Illustrierten, Weimar Germany’s photographically illustrated magazines, where the reading public most frequently encountered narrative photography. Although contemporary critics attacked the image-heavy Illustrierten as sensational examples of a “dumbed-down” culture, these magazines offered an important space for experiments in photographic form, both by editors such as Kurt Korff and Stefan Lorant and by star photojournalists, some of whom published book-length photo essays alongside their work as freelance or commercial photographers. When these same photographers published photobooks, they did so fully cognizant of the impact of formal sequencing on the ways in which their photographs conveyed meaning. As a close reading of the photo essays within a single issue of Lorant’s Münchner Illustrierte Presse shows, however, Illustrierten were not simply a sign of a broader shift in sensibilities toward images; they played an active role in that shift by enthusiastically showcasing how they used photography. They regularly trumpeted photography’s potential to teach readers a new way of seeing and interpreting the complex world around them, and in their layouts they encouraged specific modes of perception vis-à-vis groups of multiple photographs. Nevertheless, as we shall see, this optimism about technology proved to be misguided. Rather than demystifying the complexity of Weimar Germany, Illustrierten merely added more layers to it. Through new forms and new formal techniques, illustrated magazines presented narrative photography as a path to greater knowledge and enlightenment about the rapidly changing world. Yet these same forms and techniques were readily co-opted for reactionary purposes, even if they maintained the sheen of “the new.”
Unlike the short photo stories of Illustrierten or a polemic such as Here Comes the New Photographer!, which actively guided readers through accompanying text and captions, extended book-length photo essays (photobooks) more actively segregated text from image. This photo essay form became an important means by which photographers addressed pressing philosophical and cultural concerns of Weimar Germany. Chapters 3, 4, and 5 present case studies of sets of photobooks that coalesced around specific thematic interests. These chapters examine how photo essays can be understood as being in dialogue with other photographic forms as well as traditional essay forms. Chapter 3 argues that photobooks constructed from still photographs of flowers and landscapes—ostensibly benign subject matters—were in fact a way for photographers to participate in heated debates about urbanism and modernization. Albert Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist schön (The World Is Beautiful) and Paul Dobe’s Wilde Blumen der deutschen Flora (Wildflowers of German flora) offer antagonistic arguments about nature, a category regularly invoked in literary and philosophical texts to criticize urbanism, to justify back-to-basics social practices ranging from dietary reform to physical fitness, and to justify racist ideologies. As a thematically organized set of flower photographs with an incendiary introductory text, Dobe’s photobook rather uncritically venerates “the natural.” By contrast, Renger-Patzsch’s photobook lends itself to a reading more in line with a culture whose expressions of a “return to nature” ethos were as varied as nudist Freikörperkultur (free body culture) and youth-based scouting movements such as the Wandervogel (literally, migratory bird). Through a contrapuntally sequenced photo essay, Renger-Patzsch argues against those who would uncritically venerate nature as the cure for all of the modern world’s ills. First, he establishes a narrative rhythm of thematically linked photographs. He then introduces jarring images that radically shift the narrative flow. The end result is a photographic series inviting readers to question the reductiveness of the “return to nature” idealism that held such currency among völkisch nationalists, those invested in the idea that their identity was linked organically to German blood and German soil.
From this discussion of the “nature of nature” discourse in the photobook, chapter 4 moves to a more specific analysis of the “German condition” by examining the role of another photo essay subgenre, the portrait collection, in Weimar-era debates on national and racial identity. Alongside photobooks such as Helmar Lerski’s Köpfe des Alltags (Everyday heads) and Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Das deutsche Volksgesicht (The face of the Germanic folk), August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time) invokes the rhetoric of physiognomy, the belief that external bodily characteristics are indicative of deeper psychological and spiritual conditions. Featuring a sequence of portraits organized in a rise-and-fall narrative structure that accords with a model theorized by Oswald Spengler, whose work Sander admired, Face of Our Time offers a damning allegory of Weimar Germany. Through portrait photography, Sander participated in the widespread contemporary interest in Germany that sought to come to grips with its identity crisis and to diagnose and define it amid the economic and political turmoil of the 1920s and early 1930s. Sander’s photobook concurrently provides a new optic through which to read Walter Benjamin’s Deutsche Menschen (German Men and Women), an essayistic, chronologically organized collection of letters expressing similar interests in physiognomy, photography, and defining the time. Benjamin’s text pays homage to Sander (famously calling his work a “training manual”) but ultimately critiques Sander’s faith in the use of photographic typologies and individual examples to make broader claims about German identity. Benjamin uses language to do the work that Sander does with photographs, but he arrives at a different conclusion. He maintains an optimism about Germany, even though he published his book in 1936 during the dark years of fascism. The implicit dialogue between these works stresses the photo essay’s important links to the Weimar culture of feuilletons and essay writing.
Chapter 5, the final set of readings, considers two photo essays constructed from snapshots: star photojournalist Dr. Erich Salomon’s Berühmte Zeitgenossen in unbewachten Augenblicken (Famous contemporaries in unguarded moments) and Ferdinand Bucholtz and Ernst Jünger’s anthology Der gefährliche Augenblick (The dangerous moment). These works represent two different photo essayistic responses to Weimar Germany’s rhetoric of crisis, struggle, and the decisive moment. Their authors used photography to address this widespread and inflated rhetoric. However, whereas the photobook by the socially well-connected Salomon offers a more affirmative view of parliamentary democracy—albeit one that, considering Salomon’s vulnerability as a German Jew, appears strikingly naïve in retrospect—Bucholtz and Jünger explicitly celebrate danger and condemn the reigning liberal order. These works stage an implicit debate about who controlled discourse. While loaded words and phrases such as Kampf (struggle) and Moment der Entscheidung (moment of decision) have become synonymous with the Right and its attempts to expand its popular appeal, Salomon’s work shows that these terms—and the historical situation in which they were anchored—were far from predestined in Weimar Germany.
By way of conclusion, this book reflects on the culture of German photo essays in the period following 1933 and beyond. Many of the notable figures of Weimar Germany’s photo essay culture went into exile or, as in Salomon’s case, met their deaths in concentration camps. At the same time, however, photo essays and photobooks continued to blossom. Even before 1933, the new modes of perception that photo essays encouraged were being co-opted for propaganda purposes, and after the rise of National Socialism this trend continued in force. Modernist photography and narrative photography did not simply disappear. Rather, the new regime adapted them for its own purposes, where they served very different cultural and political roles, with horrific consequences.
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