I see you in black and white

One brand-new exhibition at the Albertina Museum is a must-see for photography lovers. (Actually there is another one that I also recommend at the Albertina Modern, part of the Essl Collection, but more on that another time.) The new photography exhibition Faces. The Power of the Human Visage showcases works by photographers from the 1920s and 30s, a time when many were experimenting with a different type of portrait photography.

The exhibition´s title image is “Lotte” by Max Burchartz

The avant-gard photographers of that time began experimenting with light as a tool for modeling the human face and body. The face became almost sculptural in its expressive possibilities. One important photographer who used (often natural) light to great effect, making the face of the same person look quite different depending on the angle, position of the light, and expression, was Helmar Lerski. Lerski was born into a Jewish artist family in Strasbourg, and he began working in cinematography as a cameraman in Berlin, working, among others, on the famous film Metropolis. In 1932 he emigrated to Palestine to evade the growing anti-semitism in Germany, and there, between 1935 and 1936, he took a series of very dramatic portraits of a man, calling it Metamorphosis through Light.

Helmar Lerski, Metamorphosis through Light
Helmar Lerski, Metamorphosis through Light

When I think back to the incredible cinematography of the film Metropolis and compare this to these later portraits, I can see a definite resemblence of style in these dramatically lit faces that appear as three-dimensional sculptures.

Helmar Lerski, “Arabs and Jews”

Beyond artistic use of light, Lerski and other photographers of his time were also interested in “types” of faces. Their interest was based on a widespread physiognomy discourse at the time. The question of whether and how a person or even an era can be deciphered on the basis of faces occupied scientific and artistic disciplines. In Palestine, Lerski set out to document “typical” faces of Arabs and Jews. Before that, while still working in Berlin, he had done a series called Everyday heads, for which he photographed anonymous unemployed people he had met in an employment office in Berlin, taking his signature dramatically lit head portraits and mostly removing the social context from these images. In this his work is quite different from that of August Sander.

August Sander was also interested in “types”. For his series People of the 20th Century, he wanted to document people from all walks of life in the Weimar Republic, a project he began working on in 1925. He selected his models according to occupation and social class as representatives of their social origins. Among the people portrayed are a teacher, a brick worker, a cleaning woman, a banker, and even an unemployed man. His aim was to document a cross-section of his society. He photographed people in natural light in their own environment rather than in a photo studio. Sadly, the Nazis destroyed his photo plates in 1934, and so his ambitious project came to a halt, because in its emphasis on diversity it contradicted Nazi ideology. He had, however, managed to publish 60 of his portraits in a book in 1929.

Works be August Sander

A number of important female photographers are also represented in the exhibition. Marta Astfalck Vietz and Gertrud Arndt, for example, photographed themselves in various costumes that could be interpreted as parodies of gender stereotypes.

Self-portraits with “masks” by Gertud Arndt

Austrian-born Trude Fleischmann became a notable society photographer in 1920s Vienna. In this exhibition she is represented with photographs of actresses (photos from 1930 and 1928 respectively). She had opened her own photo studio at the age of 25 and did much to encourage other women to become photographers. When the Nazi regime took over in 1938, as a Jew she was forced to emigrate, eventually reaching New York where she opened a photo studio in 1940 and continued to have a stellar photographic career.

Actress portraits by Trude Fleischmann from 1930 and 1928

Beyond the artistic expressions and social critiscism found in many of the exhibited photos, what is also clear is that one must not disregard the political context of the time in Austria, which on the one hand damaged many photographers, and on the other made some become tools of Nazi propaganda. The photographer and director Willy Zielke made the film Unemployed. A Fate of Millions in 1932 about unemployed factory workers. The political narratives had to be changed from the originally socially critical film after the National Socialists came to power in January 1933, and the title was changed to The Truth. A film of the suffering of the German worker. Zielke had to add Nazi election posters and images of the construction of the Reichsautobahn, advertising National Socialism as a solution to unemployment. He was nevertheless forbidden from showing the film and he did not fare well during the Nazi years.

Stills from Willy Zielke´s film “Unemployed. The Fate of Millions/The Truth”

The interest in physiognomy and “types” that is present in the works of Lerski, Sander, and others, was also used from the 1930s onwards to bolster a culture-conservative “home” photography. While many suffered, the service of some of these photographers to National Socialism is undeniable.

Overall this is one of the most interesting exhibitions of portrait photography that I have seen, not least because it becomes evident that what we now think of as so modern and “cool” in the media streams we are faced with, such as dramatic low key portraits, is actually nothing new. They did it first. And if we do it too, that´s OK.

  • ALBERTINA “FACES – Die Macht des Gesichts” (The Power of the Human Visage)
  • 12. February 2021 to 24. May 2021 at the main building of the Albertina Museum
  • The exhibition is curated by Walter Moser and shows 154 photographs, 7 film clips, and 7 books
  • Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

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