And furthermore ...

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Friday 26 July 2013


Weimar photographic studios
 “People of Berlin - people of the world - this is our moment. This is our time.”
Barack Obama, 2008

Between 1924 and 1935 the Ross company (Ross Verlag) published over 40 000 real photo postcards of European, American and especially Weimar German actors. It’s surprising then that few film historians have done work on the company. The most thorough resource can be found on the Ross Cards website, but what’s missing is the commerce. The company was instrumental in promoting cinema stars throughout Europe and promotion wasn’t just about churning out thousands of postcards. It had as much to do with the cultivation of an image and the presentation of a look. It would be good to know how closely Ross worked with the studios in creating the image, who bought the cards and who collected them.
The relationship between Ross Verlag and the film studios isn’t clear. If Heinrich Ross bought a concession from the studios then the use of some of the same images by other German companies such as Photochemie doesn’t make sense. But it doesn’t either that the studios would pay him to publish postcards when they could do that themselves. If it operated according to regular publishing models, which vary between countries, the cards were produced and distributed then percentages were divided up. If that was the case then Ross had a close role in marketing and could presumably reject some images for being outside its interest.

What is also noticeable is that cards usually carried the film studio stamp (UFA, MGM) or the photographer’s but it is unusual to find both. That suggests that Ross Verlag bought images directly from the photographic studios. Most surveys of German photography from the era concentrate on the obvious names, ignoring some studios because it is assumed they were commercial and don’t represent the avant-garde of German modernism. Whether the studio principally worked in portraiture or advertising, familiarity with the new aesthetics was essential. The clients demanded it so every photographer knew the basic principles. What about the customers? How much was Ross working to demand and how much was he creating it?
A recent post was devoted to Alex Binder, the photographer most commonly associated with Ross Verlag but work from studios across Europe was used. The Ross cards website lists over fifty studios from Berlin alone. Assuming that most of the actors who sat for portraits were well known enough to pick the studio, that gives us an idea of how active the business was at the time.
 Below are examples from some of the Berlin studios most likely to be found on Ross cards.  A couple have long been recognized as being at the forefront of German modernism and some have recently become the focus of revived interest. Others remain neglected. 

Becker & Maass

One of the unjustly forgotten studios, it was probably established in the 1870s by Otto Becker with Maass joining as a partner some time in the 1890s. If Becker was still alive when these cards were produced he had been in the business for fifty years. More likely then a family member inherited the business or its success meant that new owners kept the name.
The Becker & Maass name appears on Sterne cards, the precursor to Ross, and early Ross Verlag cards, C1925 but not in the 1930s. It has one of the most distinctive styles. Strongly influenced by the soft focus painterly style of Pictorialism, Becker & Maass avoided the sweet, wholesome look some film studios preferred. Ross cards often hinted at eroticism while very, very rarely being explicit but Becker & Maass suggested something even more troublesome; the independent, self-possessed woman.

Emil Otto Hoppé (1878-1972)

Hoppé was the most famous photographer whose work appeared on Ross cards, as well known in the 1930s as he is today as a leading figure in German modernism. The British also lay claim to him as he lived and worked in London throughout the 1920s and ‘30s but for my money the most interesting book of his work is devoted to his Australian photographs taken in 1930. He travelled across the country, from Tasmania to the Northern Territory and Queensland, the south-west forests to the central desert at a time when these regions were only barely connected to one another. The Australian photographers he met, like Harold Cazneaux, were still excited by ideas that had become outdated a generation earlier. His celebrity portraits however are rarely exceptional. You could argue the difference between this portrait of Lucy Doraine and one Alex Binder might have taken but the distinction is fine. It is clear however that whoever took it was astutely professional.

Angelo Photos

Pál Funk (1894-1974) is better known today in his native Hungary than outside of it though in the 1930s he was recognized as one of the most prominent studio photographers throughout Europe. His connections through work with Hoppé, Leopold Reutlinger and Rudolph Dührkoop and as a cinematographer for Michael Curtiz are impressive as is the list of awards bestowed on him in his later years. These days it is his highly stylized Pictorialist nudes that are most sought after. You can see why in this study of Vilma Banky. Few studio photographers really understood that artificial lighting was meant to evoke rather than expose. Funk did.

 Frieda Riess (1890 - C1955)

It’s surprising how many rediscovered photographers weren’t lost at all. Everything; photographs, documents, biographical information is there, waiting for someone to eventually give it some attention. There has been a revival of interest in Reiss lately, in Germany at least, with a biography and a major exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie. When you consider her sitters included Einstein, Mussolini, Josephine Baker and Jack Dempsey, her social connections extended through Berlin’s art world and she worked as the stills photographer on Fritz Lang’s films, you could wonder why she doesn’t rate a mention in histories of German photography until recently. Part of that was through her design. Around 1930 she married the French ambassador, Pierre de Margiere, and moved to Paris, retreating from photography and Berlin society.  Note the abstract design on the backdrop in this portrait of dancer and actress Grit Hegesa. There are several portraits of dancers Reiss took against such backdrops but it is hard to say whether they were part of a series or if she just liked the effect.

Karl Schenker (C1880-C1952)

Around 1930, Schenker took a series of fashion portraits of store mannequins carefully painted and arranged so that at first glance it is easy to mistake them as real women. Schenker is another who apparently disappeared from view. His work never appears in the surveys of German photography despite adjectives such as ‘famous’ and ‘highly regarded’ occurring before his name. Like a lot of the photographers here, his best known works today are his Pictorialist nudes. Here’s the problem. Having been away from the spotlight for so long, you might think his return would excite more interest: who was this photographer who took these extraordinary nudes? Unfortunately for Schenker the world is awash with Pictorialist nudes and if he was something of a radical experimentalist in 1913 he no longer is. 

Atelier Manassé

Polish couple Adorján von Wlássics (1893 - 1946) and Olga Spolarics (1896 - 1969) began the Manassé studio in Vienna during the 1920s and relocated to Berlin in the late 1930s. Maybe they tired of Pictorialist nudes early on because although the erotica is their best known work it is highly surreal; women in birdcages, crawling out of snail shells, trapped in bottles, pursued by giant beetles – you get the idea. Monika Faber published a book of the studio’s surrealist images, Divas and lovers: the erotic art of Studio Manassé, in 1998.

Ernst Schneider

If a single magazine represented Weimar Germany it was Berliner Zeitung Illustrirte. Not as experimental with graphics as its later rival AIZ (Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung) it was still the place to get your work seen and most photographers here had images appear in it, including Ernst Schneider. In 1908 he published The Human Form and Beauty: templates to study the naked human body, which as the title suggests was erotica wearing the thinnest gauze to disguise itself as art. It came out just after Heinrich Pudor published Nacktkultur in three volumes, which espoused the virtues of nudity, vegetarianism and racial purity. Historians can’t help but make the association between books like Schneider’s and the rise of Nazism. 

Martin Badekow (1896-1983)

These days a vintage print by Badekow will set you back a few hundred dollars but you can still buy a Ross real photo postcard for the price of a bus fare. Overlooked for a long time, his photographs from the Berlin cabarets have become emblematic images of Weimar Germany. Like Funk and Reiss he is frequently referred to in the press of the time as famous or world renowned yet post-war he disappeared from the radar. Today, with the increasing interest in fashion photography, it would be an oversight to leave him out of an exhibition.

Balázs Studio

Nothing can be found about this studio despite its work appearing frequently on Ross cards. Balázs is a common Hungarian surname and Berlin in the 1920s was full of émigrés from central and eastern Europe who had either escaped for political reasons or had moved to where the money and the ideas were. Considering how popular a lot of the actors were when they sat for the studio it must have had a good reputation, in a city full it seems of world class photographers.


Saturday 20 July 2013


Images of fancy dress

“If you asked me now who I am, the only answer I could give with any certainty would be my name. For the rest: my loves, my hates, down even to my deepest desires, I can no longer say whether these emotions are my own, or stolen from those I once so desperately wished to be.” 
Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited

At a recent conference in Nottingham Verity Wilson from Oxford gave an engaging presentation on fancy dress in photography. A historian of fashion and textiles rather than photography, she admitted the topic was broader than she had first anticipated. Well, yes. Once anyone started talking about fancy dress in photography they would quickly have to set out parameters and enforce definitions before they were swamped. Here are just a few of the types, genres if you like, of photographs where people not only dressed up for the camera but assumed roles for it: theatrical, tableaux de vivant, family snapshots, glamour, fashion, folk costumes for the tourist market, tourists in folk costumes, fancy dress balls and costume parties, national identity, the erasure of identity and with all that we haven’t left the 19th century yet. Someone asked how we could tell the difference between a fancy dress photo and one of an acting troupe. Often we can’t though the distinction matters. We think actors in costume are less interesting than ordinary citizens in fancy dress because they are only doing their job. The photo above was taken in Winnipeg, C1910. I think it is a group of actors because most of them look like actors but I say that not knowing what exactly an actor looks like. And if it is a group of actors, does it matter if they are amateur rather than professional? Fancy dress in photographs is a form of amateur theatre.

For the purposes of the presentation Ms Wilson excluded actors. She was more interested in that basic desire we have to slip into another character and how the camera was the perfect machine to help us achieve that. It gives us a record that verifies the memory but more than that, from the very beginning there was the idea that the camera was a truth machine and the photograph a fact, so what better use was to be made of it than to manufacture evidence? You could assume any identity you wanted; the camera would vouch for it. 

From the Edwardian era into the 1920s, costume parties were incredibly popular at Oxbridge colleges, particularly among the arts students. A whole mythology has been built around the parties Stephen Tennant and his circle of bright young things threw and cameras were essential. The various images we have of their parties don’t suggest the behaviour was particularly wild but then, people tended to stop what they were doing as soon as the camera came out and hold that pose (Cecil Beaton was often the photographer). Evelyn Waugh’s descriptions of them usually amount to scenes of giggling groups in retarded adolescence recklessly driving around dressed as playing cards, or something to that effect. Fancy dress was part of being liberated. Some social historians relate it to the passing of the Victorian era, others to the end of the First World War, though both seem to be missing something. Just as important was a conscious effort among younger generations to engage in adult games like masked balls that had once been reserved for the very wealthy. The people in this photograph look too rough around the edges part of the Bright Young Thing set; notice how the two men are wearing carpets for togas. 

Tableaux vivant were also a popular Victorian then Edwardian pastime, but unlike costume parties the photograph was the whole point. A scene like this could take hours to put together, given that first it had to be imagined, people had to dress for it and then it had to be arranged. I can’t explain the thinking behind this though it may have had its origins in some fairly trashy artwork. It is possible the children were in a school play but we know Charles Dodgson took a lot of these staged scenes with children and there’s no reason to think he wasn’t following a fashion. During the era when tableaux vivant were popular, people didn’t shy from the morbid or grotesque. For a series of tableaux vivant look at Luminous Lint here.   

This image appears to combine elements of the costume party and the tableau vivant. If it is a costume party I doubt it was very decadent since there appear to be young children in this scene – and no sign of alcohol. They are dressed as Japanese. No idea why they are all pretending to be asleep unless the photographer wanted the impression this was a dream. Despite the costumes, something about this photo tells you immediately it was taken in England.

When it came to fancy dress, other cultures were high on the list, and the more exotic the better. The gut reaction to call it colonialist, or worse, needs to be tempered with the huge number of images we have of Chinese dressing as westerners, Turks as Arabs, Arabs as Chinese and so on. If the motive for dressing as another culture is a joke in bad taste it is also universal. This was obvuiously taken in a photo studio. Was dressing up as Arabs one of the services the studio offered? It isn’t so strange when you think how popular studio cowboys were (see here) or even sitting in a papier maché boat. It is possible too that they are soldiers on the North African front in the Second World War. When he was in Constantinople after the Crimean War, Roger Fenton wanted to photograph some of the locals in their native dress but was too shy to ask. When he returned to England he got his friends to dress up instead.

This is by Theodore Servanis, a Greek photographer working in Constantinople from the 1900s to the 1920s, and it is obviously from a school play. If the play is a French classic by Moliére, Hugo or one of their cohorts, the school was most likely Armenian as French was often the language of instruction and these were the schools that taught European classics. French wasn’t just the language of commerce; it distinguished high from low culture. If the intention was to present the façade of sophistication you could argue that was another form of fancy dress. The wristwatch the girl on the far right wears is a nice touch.

Compare the Servanis photo to this one. The man’s costume indicates he is Meskhetian Turkish, from Georgia, which when this was taken was part of the USSR. Technically this is traditional rather than fancy dress but he wouldn’t have worn this costume in his daily life. The date this was taken is important. In 1944 Stalin began a purge of Georgia and the Meskhetians who weren’t killed fled to the Black Sea region of Turkey, Trabzon in particular. If this was taken at that time he is probably a refugee making an obvious political point.

Speaking of national identity, this woman was photographed at an Elizabethan fair in England on July 30, 1924. Some quick research suggests that the Elizabethan theme was popular for fetes and fairs at the time; several examples of advertisements pop up on the internet. Historians who like symmetry might find it revealing that at one end we have the beginning of the British Empire, at the other its end, but it isn’t really clear that in 1924 most English people accepted the Empire was over. More likely; Elizabethan suggested not only elaborate costumes but also Merrie England, that hard to locate halcyon era that apparently existed sometime after the Black Death and before industrialization. These days we associate Elizabethan with ruthless machinations at the court, religious persecution and the prelude to revolution. History can take the fun out of the past.

What is it with the Far East? As often as not, fancy dress has meant the Orient, for women especially. Around 1880 Japanese style started to become fashionable. One reason was that the country had only recently opened its ports to the West and designers discovered the concept of style with minimum appearance. Teapots, bureaus and vases turned Japanese and kimonos and bamboo umbrellas became fashion items. Ancient Egypt had been popular at the same time but interest waned until Tutankhamen’s tomb was discovered in the 1920s. Japan however never went away. If its allure remained mysterious it might be because the country was never colonized by Europeans. Its stuff never belonged to the West so it never lost its glamour. And if you think about it, there are a lot of things we Europeans can’t do these days; it is crude to wear black face or dress as Native Americans, Arabs, Sikhs, Turks, Zulu or Inuit but even now, when a group get together for fancy dress you can be guaranteed that at least one male will be a cowboy, one female will come Japanese.

Anyone who collects vernacular photographs will have a sizeable proportion devoted to fancy dress, whether they set out with that in mind or not. Some collectors specialize in it. As subjects go these photos are hard to pass over. They are about people having fun for the camera and more than one scholar has pointed out that’s what we think the Kodak was invented for. But there is more, because if all vernacular photos are inherently mysterious, fancy dress adds another layer to the riddle. Philosophically speaking, it is about identity, the construction of truth and reality and so on, with the implicit understanding we are not going to get a single categorical answer. It’s that paradox that the more a photo tells us the less interesting it becomes.