And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 28 July 2012


“It’s not enough to have talent. You also have to be Hungarian.”
Robert Capa

 During the 1930s a cement factory was built in Felsogalla, 48 km west of Budapest, near the Slovakian border and the heartland of Hungary’s coal and bauxite industry. When it was finished this small presentation album was made, containing 21 photographs showing the construction of the refinery and some scenes of Budapest. There is no information as to who the photographer was though he or she was obviously a professional and when you look through the album you get an idea of why Hungary was internationally a centre of photography in the 1920s. America, France and the UK got the attention but some of the most influential photographers came out of Hungary; Brassaï, Robert Capa, Kertész, Moholy-Nagy and Martin Munkácsi, and they became famous because they left the country. The ideas they brought with them might not have been innovative so much as standard practice back home.

The album was produced by the Hungarian General Coal Mining Company, which was the country’s largest mining corporation between the 1890s and 1946, when it was formally subsumed under state control. At its height, around the time these photos were taken, coal and bauxite mining were the backbone of the Hungarian economy, which had been broken by the defeat and break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after 1918. The region known as North Transdanubia provided most of the country’s depleted wealth. Today it is one of the poorer regions.

The photographs show the construction of the factory as well as railway stations, canals, a church and schools. This was a major development project and albums for such projects were common before cheaper printing costs made it easier to produce books or catalogues. Just as commonly they have been broken up so if you find a single photograph of a railway bridge wrapped in scaffolding it probably came from a similar album; complete ones like this are fairly rare.

They belong to that often overlooked genre of documenting grand projects that began in Paris during Haussmann’s reconstruction during the 1850s, when Charles Marville was sent out to document the process. The Paris Opera was photographed from the first preparations, providing a narrative that revealed the complexity of the architecture and engineering lost on anybody who simply admired the building on its completion. There is a loose narrative in this album. It begins with the construction of the main plant at Felsogalla, depicts buildings such as the girls’ school at two stages of construction and moves to Budapest. You’ll notice the workers are for the most part reduced to small silhouettes. The idea behind the album was to give a sense of the size of the project, which essentially involved the construction of a whole new civic area then linking it to Budapest and ultimately Leipzig. 

What really matters though are the images. Sharp focus, narrow depth of field, high contrast and wide lens; you can guess they come from Eastern Europe, the part of the world that gave us a subjective, artificial photography and cinema. Notice for example how black and solid the shadows appear. The photographer was less interested in providing factual evidence than in creating a particular ambience. When I think of ‘modernist photography’ it is the imagery from Eastern Europe that comes to mind. It was colder and cleaner than the stuff coming out of America and Western Europe and today it looks a lot darker, metaphorically speaking, as if the photographers looked at the world in a particularly dark and sceptical way. 

If I could read Hungarian it wouldn’t be too hard to find out who the photographer was. Documents to do with the project ought to have been submitted to the national archives at some point. Most likely he or she ran a professional studio in Budapest with a good reputation or was a respected photojournalist working for a newspaper or one of the dozens of pictorial magazines circulating at the time. I go for the latter since there isn’t much evidence of artificial lighting, which you’d expect a studio photographer to bring along, and the photographs have that distinct graphic quality discussed above that the magazines sought and promoted. 

When the magazine Modern Photography compiled a list of the 100 best contemporary photographers in 1931, eight were chosen from Hungary, making it the most represented country in the survey. Critics and art historians have tried to put a finger on what made that possible but their cases are unconvincing, mostly you suspect because they are looking for answers in the wrong places. It is possible that this is a lost album by an internationally renowned photographer but you only have to look a little deeper into the history of Central European photography to realize how many photographers working with an approach regarded as cutting edge then are more or less forgotten today. This could have come from any of the fifty or so photographers working in Budapest or someone else from Szeged, Pecs or even Tatabanya, the closest city to Felsogalla. 

The photographs in the gallery have been arranged in the same sequence as the book. Some have been scanned showing the album page. The album measures 16x13cm, the average size of the prints are 10x6.5cm. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012


Reutlinger and Walery postcards from the Belle Époque

“Beauty and femininity are ageless and can't be contrived, and glamour, although the manufacturers won't like this, cannot be manufactured.”
Marilyn Monroe

In Paris at the turn of the last century, female dancers employed at one of the premier theatres or music halls needed to have their portrait taken and the best known studios in the city were Reutlinger and Walery’s. The artiste was expected to pay for the portraits herself and these studios weren’t cheap but they had cachet, and something else. Given the proper treatment, an appearance in one of the studios’ postcards could be enough to transform a dancer from one among the thousands into a star. 

The careers of Leopold Reutlinger and Stanislaw Julian Ignacy were mirrors. Both were born in 1863, into wealthy families that had left Germany and set up photographic business in France and both inherited their studios from their fathers, who had established reputations as portraitists to theatrical stars and minor royalty (Walery also inherited a title, Count Ostroróg of Pomerania, though he seldom used it). In portraits taken of the two men in the 1920s they even look uncannily similar, with the same clipped, steel grey hair, stiff and alert appearance and impeccable dress. Presumably they knew each other, since they operated in the same milieu, but you wonder whether they were friends or not. It’s one thing to admire another photographer’s work but when that photographer is in competition for the most reputable studio in Paris egos can get a little sensitive. 

The sons came on to the scene just the bohemian era of their fathers was passing and the Belle Époque was beginning. During their fathers’ time notoriety was expected from actors and writers but it was accepted because they were an exclusive group and widely if thoughtlessly assumed to be geniuses. During the Belle Époque the axis shifted from genius to beauty.  At its centre were the music halls like the Folies Bergère and the Casino de Paris where thousands of young women from Europe and beyond applied in the hope of becoming stars. In the 1860s George Sand had scandalized Paris by smoking and wearing men’s clothing. By the 1890s the George Sand look was everywhere in the theatres; all that was missing was a sense of rebellion.

In the 1860s and 70s the bohemians kept a discreet distance from the nobility, in public, either because they were politically opposed to each other or in Sand’s case, flaunting of her noble lineage would have damaged her credibility. By the 1890s backstage at the Folies Bergère was a meat market and dukes, princes, ageing fat bankers and wealthy, indolent sons of industrialists jostled each other for a place. There was scarcely a queen in Europe who didn’t have to step in and tell her son that his very public affair with a young starlet had to end now. Reutlinger and Walery didn’t photograph this world in the sense that Toulouse Lautrec painted it. Their job was not to expose its reality but sustain the fantasy of a magical land full of beautiful and glamorous young women, closer to the exteriors of the theatres with their elaborate Art Nouveau façades of classical goddesses than any of the stuff that went on behind the doors.

By the time Reutlinger and Walery took over their respective businesses the technology of photography had advanced to the degree the style of portraiture their fathers had built their reputations on was passé. Electric lighting for one gave them much more freedom in the studio and the carte de visite and the cabinet card had been superseded by the photo postcard, which were cheaper and more disposable. More crucially, the cheap, portable amateur camera had arrived. Anyone could take a photo of a starlet with their five dollar camera if she let them. Studios were pushed to create work amateurs couldn’t reproduce and this might be one reason why Reutlinger especially embraced photomontage.
Once a re-toucher’s job was to remove blemishes or add some coloured inks to a portrait. Upstairs from where Reutlinger took his photographs and the maquettes were made was a room employing women whose job it was to receive the portrait, apply combination printing, montage, hand colouring, even paste jewellery and turn it into a small triumph of Art Nouveau design. He could also come up with an idea, a woman floating on a butterfly’s wings for example, and apply it to portraits of dozens of women, creating sets that encouraged collectors to buy twenty cards at a time. 

In their more standard portraits Reutlinger and Walery images are often indistinguishable save the studio autograph. It takes practice to tell them apart at a glance yet it’s usually very easy to spot either one among the lesser competition. They took greater care in the production of their images than most, beginning with the photography, which was sharp and clean and both had a practiced sense of how to photograph costumes. The hand colouring was assiduous with little to no leakage of colour and they knew how to apply colour, that muted pastels worked better than bold primaries on photographs and sometimes only the barest amount was needed. It’s pushing things to call either man a great artist since they were obviously more interested in business than art but they understood aesthetic principles better than any of their rivals. 

One thing that distinguished Reutlinger’s portraits from Walery’s was that he put women on a higher pedestal. In Reutlinger’s world, and this was true across the Art Nouveau movement, women were ethereal creatures devoted to high culture, for whom living was apparently a work of art in itself. The truth, need we say, was more complicated than he let on. Some of his most popular subjects had sex lives that put famous rakes to shame and a lot came from backgrounds far removed from sophistication. All that was easy to disguise behind a tendrilled border or a classical Greek backdrop, but he also sought a particular demeanour from the women. They ought to have been aware of their beauty of course but too absorbed in art or nature to attach much importance to it. Walery’s women were more likely to play the gamin for the camera. As a general rule, (very general; between them they produced thousands of images) Reutlinger’s women were dangerous because they were unobtainable, Walery’s because they weren’t.

Walery was less interested in the special effects - he rarely used any apart from hand colouring – but the notion of erotic fantasy was just as strong, especially lesbianism. Actresses in male attire became one of his specialties. The source may have been the theatre – cross-dressing was popular in the music halls – but he understood something sharp minded photographers have since the beginning; two fully dressed women getting passionate with each other can excite some men more than a naked man and woman will. At the time postcards were the main source of income for both men they were running profitable sidelines in soft porn for more exclusive customers. Mostly they kept within particular boundaries for while France was considered freer than either Britain or the U.S there were morals agencies about and an arrest could set back business. The closest most customers were likely to get to the real erotica were in images like the one above, that left little to the imagination yet remained within the law. 

A mistake they usually avoided was to suggest cuteness. One of the most popular motifs in photo postcards of the time was of a young woman coyly gazing out from behind a posy of flowers or about to slip a letter in the post box, usually embossed with some message about as deep and sincere as, “ je pense a vous”. They sold by the truckload back then and turn up in truckloads today at second hand stores, where a dollar for one can seem a bit steep. Some of Reutlinger and Walery’s models may have only been seventeen years old but they never played the sweet little girl next door. There was always an edge. Well, the women at the Paris music halls were seldom innocent for long anyway and they learned what the photographers wanted and how to give it.

After World War 1 and the death of his son, Leopold Reutlinger began to retire from photography and did little work in the 1920s. Walery on the other hand was to produce his best known work. Beginning in the war erotic postcards appeared in Paris bearing the signature Julian Mandel, a name now assumed to be an alias. In trying to identify Mandel people have pointed the finger at Walery. The postcards were more explicit than anything he had produced for general consumption but as they fell within his métier he was a logical suspect. In the 1920s he also produced a book of photogravures of nudes that straddled the line between Pictorialism and modernism, this time under the pseudonym Yrelaw. His fondness for aliases was another causer for suspicion; that and his middle name being Julian left some in no doubt who Mandel was. 

Walery died in 1935, just two years before Reutlinger. It seems strange now that when so much attention is given to the history of photomontage and fashion photography they are often overlooked. Part of the problem was their popularity. Neither has ever been taken seriously in any artistic sense and after the First World War Art Nouveau was regarded as an embarrassing indulgence, especially compared to the stripped back clinical approach of modernist architects. All those pretty women framed within folding fans, turned into domino chips or set against painted backdrops of classical landscapes suddenly looked anachronistic. When you look at their work now you realize they were ahead of their time, pushing the idea of what a photograph could be beyond what had come before.


Friday, 13 July 2012


Some forgotten European actresses from Ross Verlag and others
 “Glamour is what I sell. It’s my stock in trade.”
Marlene Dietrich

 The proliferation of cheap Ross Verlag photos won’t last forever. Soon enough they will rise in value because these things do and even if they will never make you rich, you can pick up an actual Alex Binder or Emil Hoppé photo for next to nothing so you’re doing better than the people prepared to pay thousands for them. The best thing about these photos is that they do their bit to keep alive the names of people who don’t deserve to be forgotten. I hadn’t heard of most of these actresses before I bought the cards but a bit of background research revealed stories sometimes bigger than the films they made. 
Take Marcella Albani, who was a star in early Italian cinema, appearing in some 50 German, French and Czech films before retreating, rather than retiring, from acting to become a producer and novelist. Her last film was Der Kaiser von Kalifornien in 1936. It was a western in so far as it was set in the American west, about Johann Sutter, who discovered gold in California in 1848. Like a lot of films from the early sound era of 1930s it owed a lot to silent cinema, with minimal dialogue and melodramatic facial expressions but the opening scenes when Sutter leaves Switzerland and arrives in America are exceptional examples of early special effects and montage. By the time she died in 1959 aged 60 Albani could reflect on a successful career in several fields yet today it seems her name means nothing except to passionate devotees of silent film.

 In the episode of the 2001 BBC documentary on the human face, Fame and Infamy, we met three men desperate for fame, and Mali Finn, a Hollywood casting agent. In assessing the three actors Finn couldn’t care less about their CVs, making her assessments on such small details as the shape of the nose, the jawline and the distance between the eyes, all from the head shots they'd submitted. If there was a science to her work (she died in 2007) it was phrenology and if the three actors weren’t so self-aggrandizing you could feel pity as their illusions about talent were shattered.
Playing the role of Finn, what could we say about Xenia Desni from this Alex Binder portrait? It goes without saying she is beautiful and glamorous but also she looks more childhood sweetheart than hard hearted vamp. During the 1920s Ukrainian born Desni appeared in a number of films that gave more licence to women than cinema would again for a few decades. Sappho for one, which wasn’t about lesbianism but how a woman (Pola Negri) literally drove weak men insane with her beauty. This portrait is tame compared to some of the others Ross Verlag published of her.

The point here being to cast some light on long forgotten cinema stars it soon becomes obvious that ‘forgotten’ means there isn’t a lot of information about them. A lot of the information on this post comes from another: european film star postcards, a comprehensive site that proudly reminds us “there is more than Hollywood”. Swedish born Mona Mårtenson was a friend and fellow student of Greta Garbo’s and they appeared in several films together including The Saga of Gosta Berling, about a priest falling for a married woman, a motif more popular than shocking in Scandinavian literature. Garbo left Sweden for Hollywood and Mårtenson stayed behind, leading some commentators to suggest she missed a boat. Did that bother her? Her career in Sweden didn’t suffer as she continued acting into the 1940s. In 1949, just before her untimely death, she appeared in Pippi Longstocking, based on the hugely popular Swedish children’s books.  

 Asta Neilsen is not forgotten. To be precise here, if her dozens of films including her version of Hamlet where she played the hapless prince aren’t watched that much anymore, her erotically charged dance lasting all of a minute in the 1910 film Afgrunden has kept her memory alive. What is less remembered are her subsequent careers as a collage artist, art critic and author. When she was 86 she viewed a documentary on her life in pre-production and was so put out she took over the project and made it herself. Two years later she married for the third time (or fifth, but does it matter?). While not a great portrait of Nielsen, this photo does show her at work on one of her collages.

 On October 1 1937 Renate Müller, Germany’s most popular comiedienne, exited a third floor window in a Berlin hospital and was killed. Whether Germans believed it was suicide or murder depended on their politics though it’s telling that immediately the news broke, Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda issued press releases depicting her as a drug addict and mentally unstable sexual misfit. Taught acting by G W Pabst, whose Joyless Street starred Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo, she had become as popular as Marlene Dietrich in 1920s Berlin. Her refusal to participate in several Nazi propaganda films and her rumoured affair with a Jewish man had her marked by the Gestapo but at the time of her death she had become so fed up with the situation in Germany that she had all but given up acting. Mostly she played in light musicals and comedies though she had the lead role in the original version of Victor and Victoria, playing a singer who helps out a female impersonator in a cabaret and is consequently mistaken for a man. It was the set up for a joke that Billy Wilder would take to Hollywood.

 Ah, Berlin in the 1920s: leather, whips and gender ambiguity. Even if most of the documents show a world of stolid middle-class conservatism, these are the images that stick in our minds and here Eva Speyer plays the archetype, but who was she? The titles of some of her films – Die Morphenstin (Morphine Addict, 1920) Unter der Lanterne (Under the Lantern, 1928) Verirrte Jugend (Misled Youth 1929) lead you to think she specialized in the dark, socially concerned but highly melodramatic film of the New Objectivity movement. Speyer was a common Jewish name and she died in 1932 aged 49. Though it is tempting to draw a conclusion from those two pieces of information we can’t be certain of anything since biographical information is thin on the ground.

 We know something more about the circumstances of Ossi Oswalda’s death in Prague in 1947 where, caught up in shattered post war economy and the Soviet takeover, she was reduced to living on the streets in dire poverty. Just twenty years earlier she had been one of the darlings of Weimar cinema; “Germany’s Mary Pickford”, we are told. Trained as a ballerina, she had been one of Ernst Lubitsch’s favourite actors. At one point she was involved with Crown Prince Wilhelm, who turned out to be something of a political imbecile and the caricatures of the two of them in the press did nothing for her career.

 It may not be fair to call Margarete  Schön forgotten simply because I haven’t heard of her. Of all the actors here she had the longest career, beginning in 1918 and lasting into the mid 50s but it appears that, outside Germany at least, she is best remembered as Kriemhold in Fritz Lang’s 290 minute version of Die Nibelungen. Though her role as the scheming princess made her internationally famous, later she’d be typecast as the perfect, ever faithful and servile wife. Speaking of typecasting, as fashion went, fur lined leather was as German as a pork sausage with sauerkraut and you know at once where Ms Schön comes from.

 Michael Curtiz directed Elvis’s best film, King Creole, and Casablanca, so his work will be remembered for a while but back when he was Mihaly Kertesz his wife, Lucy Doraine, got all the attention. She was born Ilonka Perenyi in Budapest and began appearing in Kertesz’ films soon after World War 1. In Vienna they made Sodom and Gomorrah, a tale of lust, greed and revenge taking place in biblical Syria and contemporary London, that involved sets as elaborate as those Griffith used for Intolerance. Appearing in her husband’s films with film titles like The Scourge of God, Labyrinth of Horror and Good and Evil, in Austria and Germany Ms Doraine had a reputation as one of the most provocative and erotic actresses in Europe. Soon after making Sodom and Gomorrah the two divorced though they moved to Hollywood about the same time, where Kertesz prospered and Doraine went nowhere rapidly.

 Back to Fame and Infamy and the three men anxiously pursuing fame know what they need; a break, and they believe they deserve it. Meanwhile, William Goldman, who has been around the scene a while longer than they have thinks it’s all a matter of luck. “Almost every movie star that we could mention got famous because they had a good part in a hot movie that someone else turned down,” he says. “And that insecurity goes with them forever.” In the late 1920s and early 30s head shots were no big deal. A portrait by Binder or one of the other glamour studios mattered more and if Ross Verlag published it and it became one of their more sought after cards, well, you were in, even if the customers weren’t too sure about your films. But what Goldman said was pertinent. Luck was a bigger player than talent. In the same episode he described how Chaplin came up with his idea for the tramp in a dressing room and was at a loss thereafter to explain why it resonated across the world. But desire has to mean something too, How is it that Thea Steinbrecher has all but vanished so that even information on her birth and death dates is difficult to find? Maybe she quickly tired of the idea of fame and gave it up for more balanced values. As Goldman hinted, fame is a kind of compensation for something more substantial but as elusive.


Tuesday, 10 July 2012


Five real photo postcards from France, 1910 to the 1920s

“In Paris everybody wants to be an actor; nobody is content to be a spectator.”
Jean Cocteau

It’s 1919. The war is over, the economy is crawling back, a vast array of amusements such as cinema, cameras and especially cars have become accessible to just about everyone. It’s time for a holiday, so where do you go? New York, capital city of the 20th century, or Paris, where people in the know swear the real action is. Between 1920 and 1925 some 300 000 Americans moved across the Atlantic. Paris was cheap and it made the U.S look as much fun as afternoon tea with someone’s old, tired and prudish aunt: all those wild stories coming out of music halls like the Folies Bergère were enough to make any civilized adult pack their bags. The stranger thing is that while Americans thought of Paris as the centre of all that was risqué and challenging, they could see a contortionist pull off the same feat as the woman above for a couple of pennies at any small town fairground. She probably performed under a French name and had an invented background that included stints at the major Paris theatres. What she lacked was glamour. No idea who this woman is though she looks tough enough to handle Paris and America’s mid west carnival scene without a blush.

Read some books about Paris in the 1920s and you could be forgiven for thinking the city was inhabited only by a half dozen Americans on the cusp of fame and a handful of poor and dissolute European artists. Easy to forget too that during his period in Paris, Hemingway was an unknown or that Joyce didn’t need all of his fingers to count the people who read Ulysses. Much more famous and more emblematic of Paris was Georges Carpentier, war hero, world light heavyweight champion, and singer, dancer and actor with a straw boater and cane. Maybe Hemingway could write a better sentence but Georges had his measure in all the arenas of his imagination so it’s a good thing they never became friends. It wouldn’t have lasted. The point about Carpentier was that he could not only punch a man’s lights out but he knew – at least this was the impression - the right wine to go with the cheese. That was a no-no in America where a man could do one or the other but ability in both was suspect. Maybe that was why so many Americans worshipped Carpentier. He represented something that was missing back home.

It took guts to face Jack Dempsey in the ring, but was that more terrifying than crossing the English Channel in a flimsy wooden aeroplane>Flying at 72 kph, which was, we shouldn’t forget, extremely fast for that time, Louis Blériot made the crossing in just over half an hour on the 25th of July that year and became an international hero. Actually, his most enduring achievement was the development of the monoplane but his design for the wing warping would send him into court against one of America’s most enthusiastic litigants, Wilbur Wright. As with most of his cases, Wright would lose – well, technically he’d win but most countries ignored the judgement – though he held up development of Blériot’s designs for a couple of years. In the meantime the French could continue celebrating Blériot’s groundbreaking (if that’s the word) flight with postcards like this, which is an excellent example of photomontage.



A flâneur wandered the streets without any apparent aim but a true boulevardier didn’t travel so far; from the office to the bistro and then maybe another bistro. Boulevardiers needed a job but it was as important to look like they didn’t. Sitting at a café, one didn’t glance at a watch and exclaim that one had been required back at the office ten minutes ago. Rather, one assumed that late was late so ten minutes was no different to one hour. Besides, that lunch extending through the afternoon could be centred on important business. It was necessary to be seen, after all, back in the office you were hidden from the world, as anonymous as the lowest clerk. A J Liebling returned from Paris in 1927 and became one of New York’s celebrated boulevardiers; strolling along Broadway was business as he picked up stories and tips for his New Yorker articles. Back in their natural home, boulevardiers were about to lose their aura of respectability. In the 1930s well dressed idleness was a bad sign.

Of course the French didn’t invent sex but they made it funny, or – let’s be really accurate here – they were funnier about prurience than the English, for whom most jokes seemed to involve keyholes, spying and red faces. If the Americans made a single memorable joke about sex it has been forgotten, although we have to bear in mind that the various committees protecting morals were particularly strong in American cities so it could well have been put to the torch as well. The Dupont Emera studio in Paris photographed a lot of theatrical performers and this is probably an example. You can imagine the kind of play – a drawing room comedy centred on a group of over-sexed characters whose attempts at requiting their passions were thwarted by various accidents. It was French so there was a veneer of sophistication and a bit less of the English sniggering. The audience left agreeing their francs weren’t entirely wasted and caught the Paris Metro home, by which time they had just about forgotten the play. But so what? Theatre, like photography, was never meant to be taken that seriously.