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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. 


Sunday, 19 May 2013


 Photographs as material culture
 “Touch has a memory.” 
John Keats

Photographs as material objects, as stuff, where the visual qualities of the image are secondary to the tactile. The idea scarcely exists today but at the turn of last century and the introduction of the postcard all things seemed possible. Around that time the Japanese Novelty Company in Rhode Island applied for a patent for postcards on balsa. The usual cursory search shows the company had bases across the U.S, from Rhode Island to Iowa and Texas, sending teams of salesmen out to lure customers in with cheap amusements, including balsa postcards that people could insert their own photos in. They are rare these days, not because so few were produced but because the wood was fragile. Also, it has to be said, if the card above is any guide, the company wasn’t at the high end of the art market. It probably gave most of its products a year’s life span at best, but that was ok. If it had loyal customers they’d be back for more. A lobster was slang at the time for a shiftless and unreliable type.

We know more about Isaiah Taber, a photographer who began in the era of the daguerreotype, made a name for himself in San Francisco during the gold rush and went on to open studios in London and England. The 1906 earthquake destroyed his studio and much of his work and he died six years later. Today his name means something to photo-historians of the American west but few others, which is too bad because he was not only prolific, he had one of the sharpest minds when it came to business.

There is some confusion about the Taber bas-relief process. It is on record that Isaiah’s brother Freeman applied for the patent for the process but being the photographer, Isaiah took a lot of the images that would be turned into bas-reliefs, inevitably leading some to assume he was involved in coming up with the idea. It isn’t just historians. Advertisements in the Sydney Morning Herald during 1899 credit Isaiah with the process. According to one ad from June 5 that year, “the result has been pronounced by judges and connoisseurs of the art to be the perfection of photography … and it is morally certain that this new style … will win the custom of every person of artistic tastes”. Further on, the suppliers (Eden Photo Studio) threaten legal action against several companies infringing on their copyright. This is a version of the line, ‘beware of imitations’, suggesting theirs was the only company in town capable of producing proper results.

So what was all the fuss about? As the name suggests, bas-reliefs had a tactile, three dimensional quality produced by placing the image over a stamped impression. It is more difficult than it sounds. The image was being stretched over the impression, and as these examples indicate, each portrait had to be embossed individually. It was one more attempt to enhance the already lifelike qualities of photographs. Though actresses and royalty were popular subjects, ultimately the process would quietly disappear. Like the balsa wood postcard it turned out to be a novelty with brief appeal.

The last set of postcards were produced during the dying days of the Art Nouveau movement, when that had ceased to be an exclusive mark of wealth and elegance and filtered down to the hoi polloi. Alongside cheap, mass-produced Charles Rennie MacKintosh look-alike lamps and kitchenware, the middle classes could buy postcards that distinguished them as lovers of beauty without the financial commitment that usually involved.  

The cards were mostly published in Germany and France. Producing them would not have been difficult as appearances might suggest. Once the card stock was selected and cut to size, the design was stamped in and coloured then the portrait cut out and pasted in. The most difficult part would have been the colouring of the embossed surface. 

Though the photographers aren’t identified, the portraits are vaguely familiar. They are of theatre and opera stars and if not from the Reutlinger or Walery studios, from one of their rivals. Ordinarily however studios of their reputation would have put their signatures on the front. That they didn’t suggests that other companies had some arrangement to use them or else, in an age when copyright was still nebulous, simply cut out the parts from photographs that they needed and added them in.

The woman in this card is the same as in the card above, taken at the same photo shoot. This one however was posted in Chile. Presumably the originals were distributed from Paris or Berlin to points around the globe at which point local companies could add whatever details they wanted. Incidentally, the back of this postcard bears a stamp and postmark and a woman’s name (Alicia) but no address for her. Was the image too upfront for the Chilean post office? Or was it customary to have the postcard stamped then placed in an envelope to protect privacy? 

One thing about Art Nouveau that is easy to overlook these days: at the time it was modern – by definition - but it was also essentially nostalgic. Everything about it evoked an earlier age, often as not one lost in the mist of ancient history. Coming of age at the dawn of the automobile, the telephone and powered flight, the art nouveauists had to embrace technology even though it was in conflict with their aesthetic sense of unhurried elegance. The ideal woman wrote long letters, she didn’t sit on the phone, and she preferred the hot air balloon to the aeroplane. A plane after all was good for flying from point A to point B – which at that time wasn’t very far – but a balloon ascended to the heavens. 

If the definition of a photograph is anything that includes one, then that is what these postcards are, but they exist at the fringes, owing more to jewellery, graphic design and even architecture than they do photography. Even if some of these have a sophistication and imagination that makes them almost beautiful, it is more their curiousness that is eye-catching. The idea wasn’t exactly original; Victorian photo-collages used a similar idea of mixing photographs with drawings and some tintypes came in elaborate sleeves that were meant to be part of the whole image, but whoever first came up with this idea didn’t have to see any precedents. The notion of combining portraits of noted Parisian beauties with the iconography of what was still considered beautiful design was as inevitable as it was logical, as was its essential failure.


Sunday, 12 May 2013


Decorative borders around 1930s snapshots
 Art is limitation. The essence of every picture is the frame.
G. K. Chesterton

 During the 1930s it was fashionable for labs to print snapshots within decorative borders. We can be more specific about this. The earliest example in the collection comes from 1930 and people appear to have lost interest in the idea about 1936. More than that, it seems particular to North America. I haven’t seen examples from anywhere outside the US or Canada. These things happen. In the mid 1970s the colour print with the satin finish and rounded corners was the in thing, but that had the effect of making every print look drab and uninteresting –similar to what happened around the same time to anyone who wore a safari suit. These decorative borders on the other hand could enhance a photo. With some of these images the borders belong to the extent it is hard to imagine the photo without it, let alone improved by its absence.

Part of that has to do with the way the border encloses the image; everything happening off camera is shut out. I think this is the point that Chesterton was making in the quote above. The frame contains the work so the world beyond it ceases to exist. The borders in these snapshots do that but at the same time they don’t intrude on the image. 

As a topic of research in the history of photography you feel that certainly these borders deserve attention, though preferably from someone else. Where would you start? There are dozens and possibly hundreds of designs. Some are distinctly Art Deco, mirroring the age, while others are more traditional but is that important? Did labs carry several templates and ask the customers which they preferred? Does that matter? It is intriguing how an idea catches on then suddenly vanishes, suggesting this one wasn’t that popular to begin with. Alternatively, the major companies like Kodak decided it wasn’t worth the time or expense and shelved it.

What we like isn’t just the visual effect but the way these borders place photographs in a particular time. This one of four men outside a Quebec petrol station can only belong to the 1930s (Note the Marvelube sign on the pole the man on the left is leaning against.) 1930s Men in overcoats and hats will always look shifty.

Another photo from Canada (as I think most of these are). I particularly like the way you need a moment to realize what the man is doing. You’ll also notice the actual print doesn’t fit square within the frame created by the border. This makes me think the designs might have been pre-exposed on the paper before the lab printed it. The alternative would have been a template on clear gel that was placed over the print.

The border seems especially suited to this beautifully hand-coloured snapshot. It is also one of the most intricate. It looks like a typically romantic scene but zoom in and there is something unsettling about her stare.

One of those images that grows stranger every time you look at it. Obviously, some parents were prepared to buy detailed and expensive cubby houses for the kids, but these children’s poses and the boy being dressed in a suit and tie makes the scene just a little disturbing.

As the very precise information on this one tells us, this was taken on Saturday afternoon, July 21st, 1934, at Orchard Beach in Maine. The women are E Taylor and Z Baxter. 

And this one was taken three weeks earlier (July 1) at the same beach. The women are not identified but note both photos have the same decorative border. Presumably they were taken with the same roll of film though it may have been that the lab used that design in preference to others.

This is the earliest, dated 1930, but while we describe these as belonging to a particular age, this man’s pose and general demeanour look to be a generation ahead of his time. Maybe there is a story about Canadian folk music we haven’t heard yet.

Decorative borders similar to these were used on some large format studio portraits in the 1910s and 20s but it was only when the idea was taken up for snapshots that it really transformed images. A really good snapshot is about something everyday that most likely has a simple explanation but it transcends that. The obvious is dissatisfactory. We are convinced that more than meets the eye is going on.