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Monday, 27 May 2013


Weimar Portraits by Alex Binder

"Yes, I was correctly quoted in saying I introduced sex into films in the 20's, but it was sex in good taste and left a great deal to one's imagination."
Pola Negri

The few sources of biographical information about Alex Binder online repeat the same notable detail about him: up until his untimely death he ran the largest photographic studio in Europe. By largest we presumably mean the most commercially profitable as distinct from the biggest building, but that being the case we might wonder why so little information otherwise exists about him. He has no citations on Oxford Art Online, the Union List of Artists’ Names via Getty or Art Full Text and, they being the three most authoritative, that pretty much leaves him out of the picture. Consider this portrait of Lya de Putti for a moment then ask yourself how it is that within the huge and ever growing pile of scholarly work on Weimar cinema and its images of women especially, no one apparently mentions him. Why? Anybody casting an eye over the world of Weimar film will inevitable encounter his images, and anybody writing a history of it ought to be aware of his central role in creating the image of the Weimar woman. Part of the problem might come down to bad timing.

He was born in 1888, in Alexandria (some sources suggest the Ukraine) and moved to Berlin with his family when he was young. In Munich he attended the Teaching and Research Institute for Photography and the Reproductive Processes, which despite the awkward translation was one of the leading educational centres for photography in Europe. Frantisek Drtikol studied there and may have been one of Binder’s contemporaries. Binder opened his first studio in 1913 and by the mid-1920s had moved to 225 Kurfürstendamm. Here he was producing portraits of cinema stars, among them the images best known for their appearance on Heinrich Ross’s Ross Verlag postcards. As a publisher Ross would have had direct contact with Binder but which images were licensed from the film studios and which he commissioned isn’t always clear. Two of the portraits here of Lya de Putti bear the UFA stamp but this one doesn’t. If Ross was buying his images from Binder’s stock then Binder’s chief clients would have been the actors themselves, who had to pay for studio sessions or film studios like UFA. It isn’t such a small detail. If the relationship between Ross and Binder was that of client and vendor then it suggests a particular collaboration. Ross wanted a certain look to his portraits and Binder was capable of producing it. In other words they deserve more of the credit normally given to the film studios for some of the emblematic images of Weimar cinema. The alternative was that it was the studios directing the image. Binder was merely pressing the shutter. 

Binder was only 41 when he died in 1929. The circumstances aren’t clear but the timing might contribute to his neglected reputation. When he began working professionally in 1913 the dominant aesthetic was Pictorialism with its fuzzy textures and tones. He would never quite abandon it, yet when we think of German photography in the 1920s what comes to mind is either the deadpan documentary style of August Sander or the sharp modernist style of Moholy-Nagy. These are the techniques that get all the attention and Binder’s straddles them without being either. You can see the problem in this portrait of Helena Makowska. She has that gothic gloom we associate with Weimar cinema but stylistically the portrait could be placed at the tail end of Pictorialsm or the very beginning of German Modernism, For art historians who like their categories neat it belongs everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In other words, it’s easy to bypass it and settle for something more obvious.

When Binder died the National Socialist Party was still a fringe player in German politics, holding just a handful of seats in the Reichstag and less than it had two years earlier. At that point few Germans would have imagined that within three years it would be in a position to usurp power. To read his work as any way marked by what lay in the future is false. We have no idea what would have happened to Binder had he lived, but he was Jewish so his choices were limited. In 1938 the manager of Atelier Binder (as the studio was known after his death), Baroness Elisabeth von Stengel was sent to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt. Heinrich Ross on the other hand escaped to America but not before the Nazis had taken control of his publishing house. Like Ross, Binder might have survived but he would not have escaped the notice of the Nazis.

Running the largest studio in Europe was an achievement no doubt but what is in his work that merits our attention? I think it has already been established that we are not talking about someone with a radical vision. As a commercial photographer he worked to his clients’ demands. Consider this portrait of Marcella Albani; elegant, beautiful and only the most rigidly puritanical would find offence with it …

 Now compare it to this one of de Putti. There would have been plenty of middle-aged middle class Berliners in the 1920s who found the idea of a woman smoking crass and even offensive but for younger people just the way she held the cigarette was the epitome of modern sophistication. Since the older bürgerlich weren’t dictating style any longer, no one was listening too closely to them but it would be wrong to think that Binder shot this portrait because he wanted to capture the essence of the contemporary woman. Someone else wanted that, possibly de Putti herself.

Maybe it is a mistake to search for ‘the Binder style’. But if he didn’t create anything so personal or distinctive, he was there as Weimar culture took wing, and he was a participant. As for emblematic images of glamour and liberation from the era; what about this portrait of Lil Dagover or the top one of Lya de Putti?  Maybe the only reason he is not considered one of the principle photographers of the era is that no one has thought to for look him yet. 


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