Views and Reviews


DR. SARAH JAMES AT THE HISTORY OF PHOTOGRAPHY SEMINAR

Wednesday, 18 April, 2012 by Liz Kim

History of photography seminars, organised by Julian Stallabrass and Pei-Kuei Tsai, explores the history of the modern invention up to the present day by inviting academics, photographers, and curators to give a lecture at the Research Forum on Wednesday evenings a few times per term. The first of the seminars this term was given by Dr. Sarah James, UCL. She was welcomed back to the Courtauld, where she read her PhD with Professor Stallabrass in the middle part of the 2000s.

The topic of the evening was the exhibition What is Man? (1964) at the Academie der Kunst in Berlin, curated by Karl Pawek. Seen by 25 million people, it was an important photography exhibition in the relatively early days of temporary photography exhibitions in fine art context. James gave a richly detailed presentation on the subject, situating German visual culture within the historical contexts of the Cold War.

This context was woven largely through the Americanisation of post-war German culture, and within this framework, James took a comparative approach to analysing the exhibition, using the American exhibition, Edward Steichen-curated Family of Man (1955), as a basis. James offered a view of German visual culture largely influenced by their fascination for American media, with What is Man? as a response to American photojournalism found in outlets like the Life Magazine. The success of both exhibitions among the public, and their display of humanity through photomontages helps to draw an immediate parallel between the two.

The comparison across cultures and time works because of Pawek’s documented interest in Steichen’s work. On one hand, there are many similarities between the two exhibitions, such as the usage of metaphotography, conservative humanistic perspectives, international reach, corporate sponsorship, and popular appeal. However, differences emerge upon closer examination. One of the notable was that Pawek’s exhibition was not being explicitly religious in nature, whereas Steichen’s included quotes from the bible. Steichen also left out information about the photos, as they were meant to be read as simple documentary representations, and while Pawek did not include these details within the exhibition either, he did include the information in the catalogue.

On a fundamental level, James argued, Pawek presented a consistently more heterogenious view of the world than Steichen. In Pawek’s exhibition, the arrangement of photos alternated and shifted between single portraits and photos of masses, rather than focusing wholly on thematic display as Steichen did. Pawek also chose not to exclude references to racial unrest, something largely avoided by Steichen. Some of the most effective examples were from the power of the images themselves, such as Pawek’s photos of war and its aftermath, such as the images of people who survived Hiroshima. Another was the exhibition’s display of bourgeoisie engaged in ritualistic situations. By turning the lens toward the exhibition’s likely viewers, Pawek brought more depth to the critical aspect of the exhibition.

To attributing the differences to a specific German experience, James offers an interwar German photomontage as another point of comparison, focusing on the changes in the German perspective in photography. James used Ernst Junger’s collection of press photography, The Transformed World, published in 1933. Although it reached the public in a different format, it offers an interesting point of contrast to Pawek’s work, particularly in the splicing of violence with the images of everyday, creating a “stereoscoping vision” that bringing depth to the depiction of reality. To what extent his view can be representative of German visual culture in the 1930s, especially with Junger’s complex and somewhat ambiguous relationship to National Socialism, is open for discussion, but the comparison may still be useful as Pawek and Junger does share a thematic interest. In using both Junger’s and Steichen’s works, James presented a well-constructed argument that sees Pawek’s work as reflecting an intriguing confluence of both visions, and offers us a German image of man transformed by the World War II, the country’s defeat, and the aftermath.

(Click here for images)

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