The German Eye

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 13 1997 3:30 AM

The German Eye

The inventors of the Leica and their strange relationship with photography.

German Photography 1870-1970: Power of a Medium
Edited by Klaus Honnef, Rolf Sachsse, and Karin Thomas, under the auspices of Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland
Dumont; 296 pages; $60

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What makes a photograph recognizably German? You'd think that photography, the most transparent of arts, would defy those pesky national stereotypes. It would stand to reason that a German eye and an Egyptian eye and an American eye and a Micronesian eye would all be equally naked behind the lens. For the longest time, photography didn't have enough of a history to promote any fixed notions of what a picture should be or should show. But as you flip through the present volume, the aggregate mass of images does look "German"--at least according to some received notion of what that is. There's a precision, a prevailing cleanliness, a crispness of focus, a strong use of light and shadow. The pictures tend not to be pale, fluffy, indecisive or, for that matter, funky, gonzo, over the top.

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But then, when you go back and look systematically, it seems that the most "German" of these images derive from one period, the Weimar Republic of the 1920s and very early '30s, and that most of them were made by left-wing modernists, many of whom fled the country when Hitler came to power and not a few of whom were Jewish. Take the stark cover image, for example, of crewmen repairing the Graf Zeppelin in-flight over the Atlantic in 1934. The men are silhouetted in a vertical stack as they pull guy lines across the dirigible's silvery skin. The image is forceful and brooding, celebrates heroic labor, elides the personalities of its subjects--and it was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who was soon to remove himself and his talent to the safety of New York City and Life magazine.

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G erman photography took its time getting started. As one of the essayists notes, Germany for various reasons failed to produce its Nadar or its Matthew Brady. Few of the images herein predate the turn of the century by much. Crystalline architectural views of the sort that Nègre was making in France in the 1850s apparently did not get made in Germany for another 30 years. The most striking of the early works in the book are overwhelmingly imitative of the style of the American pictorialists. The only things that look distinctive at first are Baron von Gloeden's and Wilhelm Plüschow's pedophilic tableaux of Greek and Italian youths decked out in laurel wreaths.

So German photography really does seem to have begun where one might have thought it did, with the great catalogers. Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) remains unrivaled for his close-up depictions of the architectural forms of plant life. August Sander (1876-1964) embarked on a study of human types that was so evenhanded, unprejudiced, and unflinching that the Nazis burned his books. And Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966), drunk on the beauty of the visual world, recorded one thing after another--trees, houses, faces, machinery, and on and on, in foursquare simplicity. His work is more influential today than ever; recent German documentarians of a cataloging persuasion, such as Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Struth, are his lineal descendants.

Modernism in photography was less a national than an international phenomenon, but the German work was perhaps the most striking. Very loosely speaking, photographic modernism in its grandest period consisted of finding and framing the most dramatic designs to be found in the accidental accretion of the world. László Moholy-Nagy essentially invented the diagonal, for instance, and Umbo (Otto Umbehr) shares credit with his Russian colleague Aleksandr Rodchenko for discovering the graphic power of the shadow as seen from a perpendicular perspective. A lot of people all over the world stumbled pretty much simultaneously upon the smokestack, the double exposure, the multiple shadow, the wall of humans, etc.--although Martin Munkàcsi deserves special mention for his work on the last, and this book doesn't even reproduce my favorite picture by him, a large scattering of schoolchildren lying on the grass, seen from above and looking like so many clothespins.

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O f course, the wall of humans was quickly adapted by the modernists' natural enemies, the National Socialists. In place of Munkàcsi's wonderfully motley and individuated agglomerations, party photographer Max Ehlert devised solid blocks of anonymous party-rally heads, or a whole sheet of stiff-arm saluters blurred into human coleslaw. Nazi photography was correspondence-school modernism, only scarier. The strangest thing about it is how unseductive any of it seems as propaganda--Hugo Erfurth's portrait of Capt. Hauffe is the quintessential depiction of the Nazi as Frankenstein, with the bolts sticking out of his helmet--but then what isn't mystifying about that regime's allure?

After the war things happened in dribs and drabs. This collection does contain some staggering portrait studies from the late 1940s by Karl Heinz Mai of women who seem to have been emptied of everything but their outlines--some of them were in fact taken as ID-card photos. But otherwise there is some pleasant geometry, some mostly unremarkable portraits, some jazzy fashion shots that culminate in Helmut Newton's high-gloss simulated sadism. Most of the work from the 1950s and '60s has the slightly desperate air of much continental art from that time, unsure whether to please or to shock, failing to remember how to do either one, and seeming to evaporate as one looks at it.

The book ends abruptly just as things are picking up: with the Bechers' zoological catalogs of workaday buildings, and some lively conceptual sequences by Johannes Brus and Sigmar Polke. Thus, the second interesting period in German photography--the last 25 years--is almost completely omitted. Such is the hazard of arbitrary date limits. But were it not for the 1920s, and for the historical value of the Nazi and East German documents, this collection might rival Ruritarian Photographs of a Century, with its obligatory nods to every passing wrinkle of fashion devised elsewhere, its dull portraits of statesmen unknown outside the fatherland, its honorable but unexceptional petits maîtres. This, from a nation which invented the Leica, comes as something of a surprise. But since so many of Germany's great photographers died in exile--Munkàcsi, Eisenstaedt, Moholy-Nagy, Lotte Jacobi, Herbert Bayer, Tim Gidal, Felix H. Man--not to mention in Auschwitz (the pioneering photojournalist Erich Salomon, for one), we know whom to blame.

Luc Sante is a regular contributor to Slate.

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