- Photography and Germany by Andrés Mario Zervigón
Reaktion's Exposures series offers short, accessible, and richly illustrated accounts of key constellations in the history of photography, a diverse set of books exploring photography's relationship to academic disciplines (archaeology, anthropology), other cultural forms (cinema, literature), sundry thematic areas (death, flight, humour, spirit), and geographical locations (Africa, Australia, China). Andrés Mario Zervigón, author of an acclaimed study of the photomonteur John Heart-field, adds Germany to this list in a welcome contribution to the series.
At the inception of photography, conventionally dated to 1839, Germany as a nation-state did not exist. This fact is the starting point for the book, and it establishes Zervigón's general approach. Rather than seeking to identify the "Germanness" of German photography (which, Zervigón implies, cannot be located in any formal or stylistic properties anyway), he structures the book around the role that photography has played in successive phases of German history.
In the decades before the unification of the German lands in 1871, Zervigón argues, photography took its place among the other arts as a way of bringing into being culturally that which did not exist politically: it was part of the project of "national self-imagining" that characterized the mid-nineteenth-century desire for nationhood. But these imaginings were by no means unitary: the lack of consensus on the political shape the German nation should take was captured in two very different bodies of photography. The first, entitled the Deutsche Nationalgalerie, was a subscription publication containing images of members of the Frankfurt National Assembly, a deliberative body established in the wake of the Central European revolutions of 1848 and intended to realize a vision of [End Page 402] Germany unified under constitutional rule. The portraits of the delegates sought to stress the leadership qualities of the men in question but were closely aligned in formal terms with the conventions of European bourgeois portraiture. The second was a photographic portfolio documenting the Diet of Princes that took place in Frankfurt in 1863. Arrayed before a palatial facade are over two dozen hereditary monarchs done out in military uniform, presenting a "reactionary counter-image" to the Nationalgalerie (35).
The contested vision of Germany that emerges from these two publications is one of the many fractures that Zervigón identifies in tracing the history of photography and Germany. Analyzing a composite print of Kaiser Wilhelm I in his study at Versailles after the Franco-Prussian War, he argues that the image, like the nation itself, was obviously constructed, with visible seams and fissures, and yet could still be taken as natural and authentic (48). In the remainder of the same chapter, covering the years 1871-1919, he is astute in noting the competing visions of religious, sexual, moral, and political life that manifested themselves within the photographic culture of the time. This led to a situation in which "the country's population was finding occasion to become deeply aware of how the medium operated on perception" (81).
This awareness forms the cornerstone of the following chapter on the Weimar Republic: the Weimar era produced a self-reflexive "photo-consciousness" that acknowledged the semantic instability of the photograph and was skeptical of its truth claims yet mobilized these truth claims for purposes of political agitation. Photography was embraced as a sign of Germany's full entry into modernity, but anxieties about the modernizing process surfaced in fears of photographic deception and image saturation. Again, the theme of fracture is to the fore, and this carries over into the chapter on the Nazi period: Zervigón shows how the alluring and unified surface of official Nazi photography is unsettled not only by dissenting practitioners such as John Heartfield, Erwin Blumenfeld, and Hans Bellmer but by photographs that documented the political realities of racial persecution and, indeed, by photographers such as Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, whose officially approved images of aged peasants sat uneasily with the Nazi ideal of the hardened body propagated in the films...