German Photography and German History


General Photography

Picking up what I mentioned earlier, it goes without saying that the story of German photography and its curious omission to deal with the German past and/or history is more complex. Let me elaborate. (more)

First of all, there is no such thing as German photography after the war. There is West German photography after the war, and there is East German photography after the war. The political regimes in West and East Germany were very different, and it’s important to keep this in mind, especially since East German photographers had vastly different challenges to deal with, working in what essentially was a Communist dictatorship. So to speak of “German photography” after the war simplifies the picture in that respect.

But still, I am not aware of either East or West German photographers openly dealing with the horrors of the Holocaust, or of the war, or of the Nazi Regime, one of the most destructive and brutal regimes to have existed in the 20th Century.

Yet again, this is a bit too simple. There is Erich Hartmann (btw, if you Google “Erich Hartmann”, quite a different person comes up; needless to say, the first and last names are pretty common, but in this context it still is a bit unsettling). Hartmann famously produced In The Camps, photographs from concentration camps. But Hartmann was a Jewish emigrant, living in the US. Luckily his family managed to leave Germany in the late 1930s.

As a matter of fact, many German photographers - along with scientists, artists, writers, etc. - were forced to leave Germany, at least for the duration of the war. Many never returned.

A valid point, but it only works up to a certain extent, especially if one thinks about the large number of artists and writers who had either remained in Germany or who had grown up there, and who dealt with Germany’s past after the war. There are Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass, to name just the two writers who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for their writing centered on Germany’s history and identity. In terms of visual art, there are, for example, Anselm Kiefer or Gerhard Richter.

It’s not even that these artists were lone voices in a sea of silence. Up to this day, there are regular articles, books and/or exhibitions in Germany about its Nazi past. The discussion about the past not only has never ended; it’s changing shape all the time, and it’s unlikely to be finished for a long time.

Which makes the curious silence of Germany’s photographers after the war even more puzzling. What’s going on?

In The Photobook: A History Vol. 1, Martin Parr and Gerry Badger also talk about the state of German photography after the war, writing

During the Nazi period […] many of the country’s best photographers - who were Jewish - had emigrated or were engulfed by the Holocaust. Thus after the war German photography, not unnaturally, was in a rudderless state. (p. 191)
But the most notable development in postwar German photography prior to the 1960s was the Fotoform movement, instigated by Dr Otto Steinert and others. This was a valiant attempt to turn the clock back to the defining moment of ‘Film and Foto,’ as if the Nazi hiatus had never existed. (ibid.)

In other words, it’s not just me noting that post-war German photography did not deal with the German past. If you fast forward to today, there are new generations of photographers at work, and there are various photographers covering aspects of modern Germany, but if you look at the most well known German photographers (contemporary or postwar), there is no German equivalent of Kikuji Kawada’s Chizu (The Map) or Shomei Tomatsu’s Japan.

There are possible explanations for this. Not that this is even remotely comparable, but maybe it’s a situation like the case of W.G. Sebald’s lamenting the lack of German literature dealing with the bombing of German cities after the war. As it turned out, there were in fact quite a few books about the very subject (for example Gert Ledig’s Payback, Amazon’s “Look Inside” lets you read its first few pages), but Germans simply didn’t want to read about the horrors they had just left behind.

Maybe there are some photobooks which suffered from the same fate as Ledig’s Payback (just in case you’re wondering, not just books about the bombing of German cities, but especially photobooks about Germany, the Holocaust, and the war). I would be tremendously interested to learn about those books.

And there is a new generation of German photographers dealing with the country itself, the way it sees itself, and, to some extent, with its past.

But compared with - and especially in the light of - the output of writers and visual artists (not to mention historians), the dearth of German photographers dealing with the country’s past is utterly puzzling.