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Darkroom Alchemy: The Photographic Art of Studio Manassé

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 3, 2013
pp. 115-130 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0064

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In 1934, an entire edition of Muskete, a humorous magazine known for its caricature and pictorial jokes, was confiscated by Austrian censors because the Wlassics, a husband-and-wife team of photographers who operated Studio Manassé in Vienna, had failed to remove in the darkroom all traces of pubic hair on their nude cover photo. The image was one of their “photographic jokes,” a genre of work popularized by picture postcards of the early twentieth century that employed trick photography to depict whimsical images such as pretty girls growing on trees, the cherubic face of a loved one appearing in a wreath of pipe smoke or a lithe young woman hanging seductively from a businessman’s necktie. The Wlassics were some of the best European photographers working within this tradition. But the hint of pubic hair was a major misstep. The prevailing standards of beauty demanded that the female bodies appear luminous, as perfected creatures of light, marble, glass. The Wlassics went back to their studio and amended the photo, and the next month the magazine was republished without issue.

Despite this slip, the Wlassics were known as experts of the well-placed brush stroke. From 1922 to 1938, with their keen technical ability and glamorous styling, Olga and Adorján Wlassics created fanciful photomontages, convincing illusions and graphically compelling images that filled the pages of a wide variety of commercial magazines, making Studio Manassé one of the most popular photography businesses in Europe. Their clients ran the gamut from magazine editors and advertising agencies to private buyers.

Styling, staging and photographic work was handled by Olga. She created the glamorous Manassé vision in their small but dazzling apartment, which also served as their studio in Vienna’s city center. The rooms and reception area were filled with lavish furnishings—bearskin rugs, Baroque furniture, tapestries, gilded mirrors, paintings and Greek pillars used as flower stands—which often appeared as backgrounds or props. In directorial mode, Olga liked to arrange her scantily costumed models to create comic allegories and theatrical fictions. She also created quasi-cinematic sequences intended to replicate what viewers had already come to expect from the movies.

Adorján handled the artistic corrections and montages. He devoted a remarkable amount of time and ingenuity to perfecting techniques— primarily retouching, painting and overlaying images—to enhance Olga’s photographs. Her clever lighting gave the portraits a clear, concise line, but to capture the late-’20s female ideal of a girl-woman with

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her slimness and athletic build, Adorján made “improvements” to the shapes of the models’ bodies, ridding them of dreaded “curve trouble.” Fashion magazines proclaimed fat to be a menace and offered diets to achieve movie-star slenderness. Adorján was the doctor of the negative, subtracting blemishes, body fullness in the models and surface irregularities in the props, while also adding background detail.

Married in 1920, the Wlassics were part of Vienna’s high society, yet very little is known about their lives, education and training. Wiener Magazin, a publication that frequently featured their work, published rare photos of the couple with captions proclaiming the delightful extravagance of their lifestyle and their skill at discovering international beauties. They were early masters of the spreading dream of luxury.

Studio Manassé’s rich visual legacy in part chronicles the golden era of cinema and theater in Europe. Expressionist filmmaking had its origins in Germany and Austria, with a crossover in talent between the two industries of theater and film. From 1919 to 1922, the Austrian film industry produced more than 140 movies that found a global market. Popular variety shows flourished as well, bringing in international stars such as Josephine Baker and the Tiller Girls, a popular British dance troupe.

As the movie industry skyrocketed and the world of theater remained robust, commercial magazines—about thirty publications in Vienna and even more in Berlin—aimed to satisfy a public obsessed with this world of perceived wealth and glamour. They needed images to accompany the increasing number of articles on film and theater, in addition to gossip columns, sports news, fashion pieces and melodramatic stories of murder and mayhem. Often editors...

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