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Friday, 25 May 2012


Ross Verlag glamour portraits of men

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”
Lord Byron

When Rudolph Valentino died in August 1926 Hollywood film producers threw tizzy fits trying to find a replacement, unaware that in death Valentino would create a whole new marketing sideline for them. Ivan Mozzhukhin (his name gets numerous spellings) was just one actor promoted as the heir apparent. He had everything the producers were looking for, an exotic European background – born in Russia, he had left in 1918 – dark, good looks and a vibrant presence in front of the camera. For unknown reasons, possibly personal, he was passed over and he barely made an impression in America. Probably for the best so far as the film studios were concerned. Sound was coming in and Hollywood was no place for an actor with a thick Russian accent. And just as well for Mozzhukhin too. When the studios wanted another Valentino they wanted another cardboard cut out, someone who knew how to smoulder and bat his eyelids in the right scenes. Mozzhukhin was better than that. In Russia and France he was a character actor, adept at playing admirals, peasants and insane monks with equal vividness. Hollywood would have wasted his talent.
One of his most famous roles was as the model for Lev Kuleshov’s eponymous effect, which was supposed to demonstrate how editing could invoke a response in the audience. In the demonstrations Mozzhukhin stared blankly at the camera as the scene suddenly cut to a bowl of soup, a coffin and then a beautiful girl. Each time the film returned to his face (it was exactly the same piece of footage) the audience read hunger, lust or tragedy in his face. It may have worked then, it doesn’t now.

This portrait of Nils Asther meets certain impressions we have of Scandinavian cinema; slow and quiet with lots of scenes involving healthy outdoor living. If you have watched the 1922 Danish/Swedish film, Haxan, witchcraft through the ages, (or part of it. Sitting through a full length silent feature is a test of inner strength these days.) you will know the Scandinavians had another side. This, after all, was the land of Munch, Hans Christian Andersen and Ibsen; people were familiar with the darkness.
Asther only acted in a few films in Denmark before moving to Hollywood. That may have been a mistake. For sure, in the 1920s no one considered Denmark the centre of anything much but in Hollywood he was just another face. Nothing stands out in his filmography though a few titles give an idea of his status: Laugh Clown Laugh, Abdul the Damned, Sweater Girl, Night Monster. Seven years after he died in 1981 his autobiography was published in Swedish. The critics were mostly kind to Narrens väg - The Road of the Jester – but in the way they might be to an injured street cat hanging around a rubbish bin. Asther spared no details, or names, in retelling his sexual history with men and women. He was evidently bitter about his lack of recognition yet anyone could see he had been master of his own destiny in that regard. One critic wondered if he was not a little mad.


 You tend to assume that any Austrian man who died in mid life in 1941 met a sticky end and since Rolf Randolf has now slipped into near total obscurity the question hangs without much hope of an answer. He began working in cinema during the First World War, when it was still expected that a man should write, direct, produce and act in his own films. That notion passed in the 1920s with the rise of studios around the world yet Randolf appears to have carried on regardless. He was still an independent moving between job descriptions in the 1930s. Though none of his films have memorable titles, the clips that survive on YouTube remind us that he came from the same world as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. He was at least competent at melodramatic thrillers. If that sounds patronizing it’s only because information is so scarce we can’t say much more.
This portrait was taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Something about his poise suggests he has already moved from in front of the camera to behind it, where the real power and influence lay in film-making. So how did he go out? Gunned down in an apartment courtyard by a gang of Gestapo operatives? Hacking his lungs out in a sanatorium? Mysteriously, his name does not appear in any cemetery records, even under his birth name, Rudolf Zanbauer.

 Speaking of Fritz Lang, he directed three of the five great films of German expressionist cinema; Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and Die Nibelungen. Paul Richter starred in the last two. That ought to have been enough to secure him some kind of lasting fame, after all, Valentino won a certain immortality with a handful of lesser films, but Richter, it appears, had little interest in stardom. Born in Austria, he was quite happy wandering through the Alps with a rucksack on his back and a yodel in his throat. He was also quite happy taking roles in small films that involved mountaineering and turned down others that would have secured his place in the firmament. The massive Die Nibelungen is his most famous role. It was also – no surprises here – one of Hitler’s favourite films, but Richter can’t be blamed for that. In this portrait Richter looks like a gay man who has made love to hundreds of women, not a huge contradiction in America, where it was assumed any well dressed European was obviously a touch low in the red blood cells but still a threat to the ladies. The portrait is by Mario von Bucovich, well known in the 1920s and 30s as a witness to Berlin’s less pedestrian areas.  

 In the mid 1930s Willy Fritsch joined the Nazi Party. No doubt he thought this a wise move guaranteeing he could still make movies, but plenty of others, including his frequent co-star Lilian Harvey, continued to work while showing no affiliation with the party, indeed quietly but actively resisting it. The odd thing is that after the war Fritsch’s past appears to have had no effect on his career. Others broke down and confessed that their mothers made them join or one had no choice or (best of all) they had no idea what was going on. Some paid the price for collaboration and never dared appear before a camera again. Not Fritsch, who went on working into the 1960s. It was said of Fritsch that he could do two things well. One was dance and the other was smile. Perhaps that was the secret. People didn’t take him seriously enough to consider him a danger during and after the Nazi era. In the same way he could have owed his incredible popularity before the war to his offering light entertainment with nothing intellectually threatening behind it. The silent films he appeared in during the 1920s and the musicals in the 1930s tended to have lavish sets, spectacular choreography and wafer thin plots, often based on the idea that a young woman is tempted to sin, sees the error in her ways and everybody celebrates when she marries her true love. Besides dancing skills and a winning smile, Fritsch also possessed keen survival instincts.

 So, did Gustav Fröhlich slap Josef Goebbels after his girlfriend, Lida Baarova, ran off with the Minister for Propaganda? You’d think no one could do that and live; then again Goebbels could have smugly employed a little eastern philosophy and allowed the actor to demonstrate his loss, hence his inferiority. You have to wonder though; how could Fröhlich get that close to Goebbels in private? After all, if there were witnesses, today we would remember him as the man who slapped Goebbels and lived rather than the leading actor in one great film, Metropolis, and numerous Fritsch type light comedies. There is something faintly convenient about this tale. So far as we know, Fröhlich didn’t do a Fritsch and join the party but he would have had to explain how he did quite well during the Nazi era without some level of patronage. The story that he once slapped Goebbels would have been enough to override a lot of difficult questions.
After a devastating war people tend to concentrate on the future and new beginnings but they also hold a candle for the world as it was before. With so many artists dead, disgraced or living abroad, Fröhlich (Fritsch too) was a link to a glorious past when German cinema was like no other, and so he would go on to a long yet strangely inconsequential career as an actor. 

 Put yourself in Max Schmeling’s shoes, if you can. It is June 22, 1938 and you are standing in a boxing ring in New York’s Yankee Stadium. There are 70 000 spectators on hand, most, by which I mean practically every single one of them, is screaming for your blood. When your opponent, Joe Louis, enters the ring the roar of the crowd is ear splitting. The handful of people who want you to win do so for the wrong reasons; to see a black man get his comeuppance or a demonstration of Nazi superiority. You are naked except for a pair of shorts, boots and gloves. The robe you wore into the ring is still flecked with spit and rubbish. You go to the centre to touch gloves with Louis, return and wait for the first bell. What can you do? Emotionally and psychologically you are already beaten.
The Americans never loved Schmeling. A couple of years earlier he had not only beaten Louis but knocked him out yet worse, in 1930 he won the Heavyweight Championship on a foul, when Jack Sharkey low-blowed him. Legally Schmeling was in the right though the Americans hardly thought it a manly or noble way to become champion. In Germany however he represented a ray of hope. With a broken empire and a ruined economy, the nation had few people to look up to, except Max Schmeling. Artists and intellectuals turned him into a folk hero, the struggle of national pride epitomised in physical power. Ross Verlag published this photo in 1935 or 36, when Schmeling was no longer champion but still a contender. He has been given the film star treatment, you wouldn’t know he was a fighter by trade, but then he was moving in social circles that generally disdained boxing. Around this time he married the actress Anny Ondra and they remained together for more than fifty years. After the war he bought into the German Coca Cola franchise and became a wealthy businessman, dying in 2005 at 99 years old. He once pointed out that losing to Louis by a first round knockout was the best thing that could have happened. If he had won he would have returned to a hero’s welcome from Hitler. Instead the Nazis decided he was washed up and left him alone.

 “Every man has two countries; his own and France.” It was a French playwright, Henri de Bornier, who came up with that line so you can hardly consider it profound, balanced or even logical, but you probably get its idea. For a long time any English or American who wanted culture or sophistication looked to France for advice. It was naturally assumed that the French ate the best food, drank the best wine, wore the best clothes and lived in the best buildings. Georges Carpentier, Light heavyweight Champion from 1920 to 1922, understood the value in Bornier’s words. While the popular image of a prizefighter was as a sullen, barely literate denizen of the streets, Carpentier exuded gentlemanly charm and style. To the Americans he was as French as foie gras on a baguette, which was reason enough to love him, though before his celebrated fight with Jack Dempsey Hemingway correctly predicted that steely pragmatism would outpunch good living.
In this portrait published by Ross Verlag in 1925 and credited to the Atlantic Photo Agency in Berlin, Carpentier is given more worshipful attention than most film stars could ask for. Shooting from just below the eye line, the photographer puts Carpentier on a pedestal, seduced more by his glamour than his prowess as a boxer.


Friday, 18 May 2012


German cartes from the 1900s

“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

The idea that there might have been something called a unique or native German photography doesn’t get much attention until the 1920s when an essential form of modernism took off in the Weimar Republic. Until then German photography is regarded as a variation on a general European theme, but around the very end of the 19th century German studios began producing portraits that are so distinctive you only have to glance at one to know where it came from. One of the keys is the tonal range; muted greys are preferred over the contrasts of black and white. Another is the colour of the card mounts, olive, drab brown and pearl grey replace the cream of earlier times. Dimensions matter too. Once CDVs and cabinet cards came in standard international dimensions. Now studios begin utilizing card sizes with specific names: the Mignon (45x67mm), the Melanie (90x120), the Promenade (105x210) and so one, some 40 that are officially recognized above what studios came up with on their own. This portrait of a woman is a classic example. Actually it is a standard cabinet card but you know at once it comes from Germany, or at least the Germanic speaking lands east of France. It is also (speaking relatively here) very modern. You would say at once that it was taken sometime around 1910. Partly it’s her expression, which admittedly isn’t that vivid but rather more subtle than earlier photographers would have been allowed, and one reason for that is that it is obvious she is being lit by electric lamps. Historians might dither over where to place it on the timeline. Is it a remnant of 19th century portraiture, Pictorialist or early Modernist? We don’t have to concern ourselves with such details. It is enough to look at it to know it is good.

Going back a few years, we have a typical example of an1870s CDV. It could have come from anywhere – France, the US, Australia or even Turkey. It is a rather excellent study of a boy but the most interesting part may be that it was taken in a studio belonging to Anna and Minna Kohnke, in Mehlbye, near Kappeln, close to the border with Denmark. Studios run by women weren’t unusual, just uncommon, but Mehlby was just a village. You feel there is more to the story of Anna and Minna Kohnke but what exactly that is remains unknown for now.

Moving on to the turn of the century and another portrait that could come from just about anywhere, which doesn’t detract from its quality. Some people might be drawn to the tow boat, the fake rock or the boy’s sailor suit but for me the best part is the backdrop. It is so quietly done it almost disappears but looking closely we see a yacht on the horizon and a dune and grasses just behind the boy. It is an attempt to make the scene as natural as possible. Borkum is a resort island in the Frisians and like most resort photographers, Hans Kretschmann constructed an elaborate effect for what existed naturally just outside his window,

Americans are in the habit of claiming that modern photography began around the end of the First World War, when Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen ditched the soft focus of Pictorialism in favour of sharp, clean lines but there is a lot of evidence to show they weren’t the first; like this 1912 photograph. The woman is using a chair as a prop, as millions had before her, but here instead of merely being a device to add detail to the composition, the back becomes integral to the design, corresponding to the pleats in her skirt. Karl Lützel, the photographer, was fairly prolific in Munich but he wasn’t renowned for his experimentation. A commercial portraitist, he used ideas that were already in place. German, or to be absolutely pedantic, Central European photography, was already developing its own aesthetics when the Americans made their move.

Sometimes the most interesting part of a German carte is its back. Information on Hartmann is scant but it is obvious that by 1902 he had embraced the Jugendstil aesthetic, employing its typography and decorative elements. Well, he was hardly alone in that; just about every photographic studio in Germany was doing it too. 

Here’s another example, by the better known Heinrich Axtmann of Plauen. Like most studios he has dispensed with the traditional and difficult to read Gothic font in favour of several others that are simple and clear. This is the modern world after all and in typography as much as architecture, the ridiculously elaborate pretensions of the Baroque and Neo-Classicism have no place in it. Jugendstil was the German version of Art Nouveau but whatever you want to call it, it was a very feminine movement, with tendrils instead of sharp angles and flowers replacing solid shapes.

None of this was necessarily reflected in the photographs themselves although in Axtmann’s portrait here and Hartmann’s above there is more emphasis on the woman’s shape than earlier portraitists would have considered. Notice the way she appears to blend with the background and dissolve at the base; whatever her intentions for having her portrait taken he wanted a study in contours, stripped of extraneous detail. To his eye she could represent the idea of modern sophistication, less an attitude than an appearance.

Germany in the first decade of the 20th century has a somewhat schizophrenic reputation. Berlin was the centre for the most radical ideas and behaviour in Europe and Weimar had been a home for Goethe, Nietzsche and Rudolph Steiner, but away from those places the impression was of a rigid, humourless Protestantism, somewhat like Scotland, and a disciplined militarism. At first glance this couple look to be the epitome of dour, Germanic severity, but look again and you realize she gives off that aura, he’s a little more ambiguous. Something about him suggests a familiarity with the less sophisticated side of Kolberg, which then was in Germany and now is in Poland. If this was taken, as I guess, around 1910, he would have been too young to take part in the Franco-Prussian War and would have had only vague memories of Germany before the declaration of empire in 1871. Compared to what his parents and his offspring experienced, his life was relatively free from turmoil, Germany was rich, he looks prosperous and, judging from her expression, the wife was probably happy to stay at home with her Bible and her knitting while he trawled the streets.

At the turn of the century Germany was producing the best cameras and the sharpest in the world but commercially they failed at photography because unlike the French, the British or the Americans they could not do cute. In other countries photographers had no problem giving a boy in a sailor suit a toy boat and extracting an expression of winsome innocence from him. The Germans tried, like the Wolff studio in Frankfurt did here, but most German children appear to have found it repugnant to put on airs for adults’ sake. The boy looks bemused, the girl frankly irritated at having to dress like Hansel and Gretel, and why not? They’d obviously feel stupid wearing those clothes out on the street so why should they feel different in a photographer’s studio. The girl will go through life getting her own way. Her brother will make one compromise after another until he longs for the sweet mercy of oblivion.

The portrait of this soldier was taken in Berlin, probably between 1905 and 1914. He isn’t wearing any discernable insignia, which suggests he was at an officer training academy. At any time after 1910 he would have known war was inevitable though he might have assumed it would be located in the Balkans and Germany’s main role was to shore up the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Empire. Even in the first months of the war he could have been forgiven for believing an officer’s first role was to provide a model of dignity and poise to his soldiers. After all, everyone around the Kaiser was confident this was a just an argument that would quickly be resolved. 

And what of this polished individual? He looks like officer material too though he is young enough to be a student photographed before a ball. Whatever the case, he’s of an age that made frontline action almost inevitable – almost because if his family had money or influence he could have secured a desk job in Berlin. When you think of what was happening in photography and what would come after, it’s easy to dismiss this German period as commercially ordinary but right at the time these portraits were taken August Sander was running a studio in Cologne and producing work of much the same standard. He was also at the beginning stages of his massive compendium of portraits of the German people. A lot of those early efforts depend on the now accepted formula of clean lines, even tones, muted, angled lighting and a complete absence of artificial sentiment. The difference was that Sander didn’t just rely on whoever came through his door but went out looking for his subjects. It isn’t far fetched to see in these portraits a missing link between the 19th century and modern photography.


Friday, 11 May 2012


The day job
"Work is the refuge of people who have nothing better to do."
 Oscar Wilde
“It's true hard work never killed anybody, but I figure, why take the chance?”
Ronald Reagan

You have to wonder, was there ever anybody who thought their idea of the perfect job is to sit behind a desk signing pieces of paper all day? If that person existed then the way fate works they probably ended up being a test pilot, quietly bitter like most of us because things hadn’t quite turned out how they’d thought they would. ‘Pen pusher’ is so derogatory not many want to admit that’s what they do but how many solicitors seriously regard contracts as anything other than standard forms composed in a specific language which they merely have to append a signature and a date to? And don’t get me started on notaries. The old term, scrivener, is much more appropriate; it suggests some shrivelled old man scratching his autograph across a document for which the client has the privilege of paying out a small fortune. At least accountants, the archetype of the dull profession, can occasionally boast of working minor miracles with numbers. It isn’t the case so much anymore but public servants in Australia had Friday lunchtime to look forward to, when the hours slowly melded into the night and without the imposition of cell phones they felt no obligation to call home.

One noable thing about these photos is the paraphernalia. Every desk used to require a blotting pad, a jar of pens and various chrome items, some of which were there for appearances’ sake. One has to be suspicious of a very neat and minimally decorated desk. It suggests the occupant has time to put the chrome items in order. A cluttered desk – there aren’t many here – indicates the worker is busily moving from one task to the next, living by the principle that he knows in his own head where each piece of paper is should he need to find it in a hurry. Like a personalized writing set, a cluttered desk is also a sign of higher authority. Until the concept of time and management was invented, an untidy desk also meant a good worker. Such men are, or were - the computer has also robbed many clerks of their dignity – the best administrators, even if the rulebooks said they weren’t. For those types, wrestling order out of chaos was a matter of personal honour. The chaotic workspace was evidence of creativity; they were testing themselves against the monotony. When the chips were down, they were the ones to get everybody else out of the mess. Not surprisingly, they were also the ones who stayed longest at Friday lunch and burnt out with the loudest crash. 

 Throughout the long years of the 1950s and 60s American television relentlessly pushed the idea that a man behind a relatively clean desk was the ideal citizen. Whenever Ward Cleaver in Leave it to Beaver, both Darrins in Bewitched, and the father in My Three Sons were filmed at work they were in situation not far removed from the men in these photos find themselves. Primarily they were supposed to represent the middle class heartland but they also invoked a desirable lack of ambition. You only needed a few things in middle America – a family, of course, a house, a car and a stable desk job that would see you through to retirement. To ask for more was to demand too much. It is easy now to look back and think of that certainty as precious, but TV Land also promoted a world where you were expected to be grateful for small things, never question or doubt and certainly never push. Several of the men in these photos are in the Turkish military, which in the 1940s and 50s was a dark and strange place to be, but in the imagery at least they represent similar values to America; the one deigned desirable in the media anyway. They know their place.

There is a difference. Most of these photographs reveal a shabbiness American TV would never have allowed to show through in its imaginary world. The walls need a lick of paint, there is inexplicable stuff attached to some of them, most of these people are working in tiny, cramped and probably depressing offices. They are middle management; they will always be told they are respected for their loyalty and dedication but this is about as far as they will rise.

There are so many snapshots of men at their desks in Turkey they could be classified as a genre, and since there appears to be relatively few from America or Western Europe, you have to ask why. Maybe it was a small badge of honour in Turkey to be photographed at the desk, though not many of the men here appear to be in love with their work. If anything the pictures confirm they were experiencing the same drudgery as every other white-collar worker in the world. Excepting a couple, they look too casually composed to be promotional. Maybe, like the proliferation of Turkish snapshots of people in hospital, they are one of those incidental cultural expressions that no one thought worth commenting on at the time. Now digitalization has made photography so perfunctory we are left with unsatisfying speculation.

Friday, 4 May 2012


A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.
 “Teachers are the one and only people who save nations.”
Kemal Ataturk

Today Turkey’s literacy rate is measured to be around 90%. In 1940 it was estimated that many were illiterate. Most of the population was rural based and outside of the major cities few males and probably no females could either read or write. With statistics like that, the late Ataturk’s vision of a secular, technologically sophisticated society was looking distinctly rose tinted. The situation urgently required practical solutions to drag the nation out of the rural backwater and into the modern world. This boy is from Erzerum, a small eastern city that in the 1940s was geographically closer to the Russian border than it was to Ankara; some suspected it was philosophically as well. In 1940 it was had one of fourteen Village Institutes in the country, a radical experiment in education that prosperous western countries looked to as a model.

The Village Institutes could only have been set up in a post revolutionary environment, where the list of problems facing the new state were huge yet there were people still inspired by the momentum of change and the enthusiasm to put ideas into action. The man credited with setting up the Village Institutes was Ismail Hakki Tonguç, the General Director of Primary Education. In his climb up the ladder he had not distinguished himself as a particularly radical thinker but the crisis facing education in Turkey was not likely to be solved by slow and gentle innovation. The few village schools the Republic inherited from the Empire were religious and the curriculum was based on memorizing the Koran and learning Arabic script. Not only were they now ideologically redundant, nothing in their programmes encouraged practical skills. In some cases rural based education involved introducing modern farming methods, such as the use of tractors.

Another problem was how to attract teachers. It was never a well paid profession, even in the cities, and the prospect of spending four or five years in a remote town was only going to appeal to the most idealistic; the men (the teachers were mostly men) who really believed their greatest duty to the new Republic was in educating the people who needed it most. Such people existed though they weren’t that common, nor were they the ideal teachers, not if they had never spent time in a village and understood how different things were out there. Tonguç’s solution could have been a stroke of genius. The students selected for the Village Institutes would be those from the area who showed aptitude for learning. The real purpose of the schools would be to train them as teachers. In time, in theory, education in the rural areas would become self reliant and the teachers would not only be the most academically talented but their stake in the advancement of village education would be personal.

Reading literature, learning music and keeping folkloric traditions such as weaving were as important as maths and basic science. The students also learned agricultural skills like beekeeping, animal husbandry and construction. Girls were taught childcare and modern health practices. Once Friday afternoons had been given over to prayer, now the institutes ran self-criticism sessions where the students were expected to actively challenge the teachers. Such idealism belongs to a certain type, which in the 1940s was generally categorized as Marxist and communism in its various forms was the one ideology the Government would have no truck with, not with Soviet Russia right next door. While Stalin was busy starving the Russian peasants, the teachers at the Turkish Village Institutes were attempting to introduce a more perfect form of Marxism, based on the principle that the villagers would become masters of own means. 

If a government suspicious of left wing ideas had offered the only resistance to the schools, it could have been persuaded that for purely pragmatic reasons the experiment was worth supporting. But pressure was also coming from within the villages, especially the focus on training young girls in modern ways. Centuries of inculcated notions about a woman’s status were being challenged and there were plenty of village men who did not believe educating women to any level was necessary. In 1950 President İnönü offered the country its first multi-party elections and paradoxically sealed the fate of the Village Institutes and their focus on free expression. Under pressure from elements within his own party as well as the opposition Democratic Party he closed the schools. When the DP won the elections the schools were absorbed into the official teacher training education model. 

There are people who see the gnarled and sinister hand CIA behind the closure of the schools but they tend to see it wherever they look. Much as it didn’t want socialist teachers so close to the Russian border, the CIA didn’t have to intervene so long as there were enough elements within Turkey who wanted the schools shut down. A nervous government facing its first election and strident opposition from conservatives were enough to seal the fate of the system. These days there is a certain nostalgia for the ideals of the village institutes and even attempts to revive them but although there are people around who fondly remember their student years at one of the schools, they were too short lived to prove they could have brought in the changes they promised. Ten years wasn’t long enough to see the kind of results Tonguç expected. Given another decade a different Turkey could have emerged, but what it would have been remains unknown. 

All of these snapshots were taken in Turkish villages in the 1940s and 50s. There are still parts in the country that haven’t changed that much.