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photography and germany
22 august 2017
Andrés Mario Zervigón's Photography and Germany synthesizes the two topics of its title beautifully, in the process becoming an excellent introduction to the history of both.
Photographic technology and a united Germany grew up together. Photography was not a German invention (the important early processes were devised by French and British researchers). But Germans made key initial contributions to the progress of the technology. At the same time, in the early-to-mid-19th century, Prussia increasingly led the drive for the German-speaking states of central Europe to coalesce into an empire.
"Progress" is an important word here. The German Empire saw itself as a forward-looking state, a leader in technology. But at the same time, it needed a centripetal force of cultural identity. Photography, argues Zervigón, could provide both. The Hohenzollern royal family used cartes-de-visite (as the name suggests, another French invention) to disseminate their leaders' images (60). Meanwhile, urban photographers combed the nascent nation for visions of authentic German identity, a quality they found in places as far afield as Strasbourg and Nuremberg. Family and individual portraits could offer windows into wholesome, normative domesticity, or sometimes into alternative lifestyles (as with the artist Diefenbach, 57) – or later, more ominously, with images of the hardy Aryan peasant symbolizing Blut und Boden for rising fascists.
Throughout this survey of early photography, Zervigón emphasizes the point that photographs cannot be read unambiguously. The most blatantly directive image can be pulled toward irony and dissent. The immediacy of photography gives it great authority; the ease with which photographs can be manipulated makes their images inherently suspect. Retouching, mashups, montages, collages, and other distortions and assemblages characterized both Hohenzollern earnestness and Weimar cynicism.
One expects considerable treatment of both National-Socialist and DDR themes in a book called Photography and Germany, and Zervigón provides it. He illustrates the idea that both of these totalitarian regimes used photography to conceal as much as they used it to propagandize. In Hitler's Germany, atrocity remained unrevealed till both German and non-German photographers flooded the country after its conquest; the public was surfeited with cheerful Volk-sy images that belied dearth and death.
There also existed a great mass of banal amateur and commercial photographs made and consumed by the country's citizens over these years, images that are difficult to read as openly fascist. (122)I think here of Ydessa Hendeles' massive Teddy Bear Project, which assembles such a huge number of such banal, anonymous images.
In the DDR, the imperative to record productive workers meeting spurious economic targets led, paradoxically, to a haunting kind of irony, as in the work of Ursula Arnold, Evelyn Richter, and Jens Rötzsch.
In postwar West Germany, by contrast, photography seemed to avoid both celebration and oblique cultural analysis, aiming squarely at the uncontroversial and largely achieving it. Ultimately, abstraction would become a key mode for photographers in the Federal Republic. Zervigón discusses Gerhard Richter's painterly manipulation of photographs, his trademark blurring making it not just difficult to see, but also to interpret, the image produced by the camera.
Much of Zervigón's final chapter, on post-1989 work, reads like just one example after another. It's possible that most approaches to contemporary art should read just that way. We cannot opine too much about a Zeitgeist until we're sure the Zeit has passed and we know just what the Geist consisted of. One dynamic that Zervigón stresses is the impetus that the fall of the Berlin Wall gave to the reopening of archives, the flood of suppressed images that accompanied reunification, from Stasi secrets to bourgeois hoards, from erased pasts to supposedly private presents. He argues convincingly that contemporary Germany is photo-mad – but what contemporary society isn't?
Zervigón, Andrés Mario. Photography and Germany. London: Reaktion, 2017.