Review: Friedrich Seidenstücker: Of Hippos and Other Humans


Book Reviews, Photobooks


A fair amount of photography from what one could think of as archives is now being released. Some of that work saw the light in a different - or even the same - form before. Some has never been published. Those books always raise certain questions for me. After all, I want to be looking at photobooks for the photographs and the stories they might tell me. (more)

For example, there is the aspect of nostalgia. In his magnificent Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, Simon Reynolds writes

“Nostalgia as both word and concept was invented in the seventeenth century by the physician Johannes Hofer to describe a condition afflicting Swiss mercenaries on long tours of military duty. Nostalgia was literally homesickness, a debilitating craving to return to the native land. […] As it became de-medicalised, nostalgia also began to be seen not just as an individual emotion but as a collective longing for a happier, simpler, more innocent age. The original nostalgia had been a plausible emotion in the sense that there was a remedy (catching the first warship or merchant vessel back home and returning to the warm hearth of kith and kin, a world that was familiar). Nostalgia in the modern sense is an impossible emotion, or at least an incurable one: the only remedy would involve time travel.” (italics in the original, boldface emphasis mine; I’d love to give you the page numbers of these quotes, but I bought the Kindle version of this book for reasons I might talk about some other time)
Nostalgia in the modern sense, to use Reynolds’ phrase, is borderline toxic, since there is no way to resolve it: It’s a yearning for a past that, more often than not, didn’t even exist that way: It’s idealized. So it’s more like a delusion than genuine nostalgia. For a much better discussion of what’s going on here read Reynolds’ book - while it’s about music, the initial chapters apply easily to photography. Of course, photography can - or maybe should - transport us into a different world, but still, we want to be careful how - and why - this is being done.

Another aspect is the aspect of story. Often, the story around some photography is much more interesting than the actual photographs in question. I am sure people will send me angry emails now, but the best case I can think of right now is Vivian Maier: Street Photographer. That’s a great - and sad - story: The nanny who photographed on the side, never showing her work to anyone etc. But the strength of that story isn’t remotely matched by the photographs. The good images are quite good, but most of the work is, well, mediocre. Compare it with the best practitioners of street photography active at that time, and you’ll see.

Of course, without a good story selling books is much harder, and let’s face it, we want stories. We want stories inside the books, and we want them around the books. This is not to say that nostalgia and/or a story are bad when looking at photobooks of old photography. But it’s just like with photobook design: A photobook is about photographs, and the design must not overpower the photographs.

Friedrich Seidenstücker: Of Hippos and Other Humans, a catalogue of the photographer’s work, shot between 1925 and 1958. Seidenstücker was a Berlin street photographer who lived through some very turbulent times. He traversed the city’s streets in the 1920s, 30s, and late 40s (the Nazis made street photography basically impossible), taking photographs. He also spent considerable time at the Berlin zoo (hence the hippo in the book’s title). The zoo photographs aren’t necessarily the strongest images in the book, even though I enjoyed the images of other photographers doing their work there (those are giddily subversive).

The book is a good example of how one can present photography from an artist’s archive while for the most part avoiding the problems of nostalgia or of relying too much on an interesting story. Divided into different sections, there are introductions to the parts that are very informative. I have the feeling that most people will prefer some sections over others, simply because of where their interest lies. The street photography from the 1920s and early 1930s is fascinating, even though it very clearly feels like a very different time. The street photographs from the late 1940s is chilling: Life in the ruins of Berlin.

As a book, Friedrich Seidenstücker: Of Hippos and Other Humans provides a well-rounded package, which strikes the right balance between presenting the photographs, talking about the time when they were made, and presenting the man who took these pictures. I think that’s probably the best approach to these kinds of books, because it does justice to all the parts of a photographer’s life, without overly stressing one at the expense of all others.

Friedrich Seidenstücker: Of Hippos and Other Humans; photographs by Friedrich Seidenstücker; essays by Wolfgang Brückle, Ulrich Domröse, Florian Ebner, Ulrich Griebner, Christoph Ribbat, Sabine Schnakenberg, Antje Schunke; 328 pages; Hatje Cantz, 2012