Vernacular Photos: Nazi Germany
Today's posting is a delacate topic: photographs of Nazi Germany. What are we to do with images of German soldiers? There are various restrictions and laws around the world prohibiting the sales of Nazi memorabilia. (You can see eBay's here.) In spite of the difficult subject matter and horrific legacy of Nazi's upon the world, I feel it is important to consider the images for a number of reasons...and pehaps ones that may seem contradictory.
First, we live in a strange time of Holocaust denial. What makes this strange phenomena worse, is that it is growing. Because of photography's veracity, these images and other like them, serve as a reminder of the horrible attrocities the Nazi's committed. These images do so only indirectly, however.
Secondly, I noted in my post on the 13th that "photography is intimately caught up with the documentation of place and time, sometimes the poignancy of history, like Barthes prick of the punctum, is startling." One of the other peculiarities about looking at vernacular photographs is that as viewers we are peering into another person's life. And in these cases, they are not able to interpret the image for us. We are outsiders to the photographic event. Many of the photographs I've posted here came in one large lot bought off of eBay. What was striking to me in these photographs, like Barthes punctum, was the domestic nature of in which many of the photographs shot...homes, weddings, with friends and lovers laughing and eating. One of the reasons the photos are important to see is that they humanize those who are often painted in the widest of brush strokes as Nazi's. For me, the prick of these images highlighted the nature of being an American, brought up with Hollywood films full of patriotic American soldiers fighting the Nazi's. And not to deminish the atrocities of the Nazi's nor the sacrifices of Allied troops, but the images remind us of the humanity behind the stereotypes cast about in popular culture. It reminds me of the dangerous power of propaganda within the popular imagination.
Of the thousands of photographs that I have, several hundred are of American soldiers. Photographs of them with girlfriend or wife. Photographs of them with parents and siblings. Photographs of them with their children and friends. Photographs of them in their uniforms getting married, going for dinner, relaxing in the safety of their home. The difference between these images is simply the uniform which subsequently triggers all of our collective memory and preconceptions into action.
Historically, "stereotypes" originated from an efficient printing process that allowed for repeated usage of one typesetting. We use the term now in a metaphorical manner. “Stereotypes are rather negatively defined as ‘conventional, formulaic and oversimplified conceptions, opinions, or images’ that may communicate without nuance or subtlety. For visual communicators, whether they are filmmakers, photographers, graphic artists, etc…stereotypes are useful devices because they are easily understood and make clear, albeit possibly injurious, points.” “Stereotype is a shorthand way to describe a person with collective, rather than unique characteristics. To stereotype is, in both a real and metaphorical sense, to lose sight of the individual.”
And while I absolutely condemn the atrocities committed by the Nazi's, these photographs of the intimate moments of life of these German soldiers remind me to consider the humanity of the individual as well as the larger historical and geopolitical context of their life.
 Images that Injure, Lester & Dente Ross, xi.
 Lester & Dente Ross, 2.
I have said numerous times in the past that receiving an emvelope or package of photographs in the mail from eBay reminds me a lot of collecting baseball cards in my youth. And like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates, you never know what you are gonna get. And while photography is intimately caught up with the documentation of place and time, sometimes the poignancy of history, like Barthes prick of the punctum, is startling. This photo does that for me. It is one of many recieved in a packet sometime this spring. What I love about it is the the beautiful script that dates and a name or two of the men standing around at Lehigh. Not only is the date of the photograph given in June of 1924, but the dates of graduation of these men.
The photograph was taken by Albert Broadhead, aparently a well-known and generous 1888 alumnus of Lehigh.
"When Albert Brodhead learned of James Ward Packard’s large gifts to Lehigh, he asked then university treasurer Walter Okeson if Packard had visited Lehigh since his graduation. Okeson said no, and Brodhead replied, “It seems to me if an alumnus without any local contact with the university can do so much, that I, who have always lived here and whose father was one of the early trustees of Lehigh, should do my share.”
Brodhead’s father, Charles, for whom Brodhead Avenue is named, acquired extensive properties in what was then South Bethlehem and was involved in the iron and railroad industries. A business associate of Asa Packer, Charles was an early benefactor of Lehigh, donating the land on which the Alumni Memorial Building stands. A Bethlehem native, Albert Brodhead joined Chi Phi fraternity, the Photographer's Club, and the Electrical Engineering Society while attending Lehigh and graduated in 1888 with a degree in electrical engineering.
Brodhead spent his career managing the family real estate, most of which was located in the Bethlehem area, including the historic district, South Bethlehem, and the then-undeveloped farmlands north of Route 22. He was an organizer and director of the Northampton Country Club and belonged to several other social organizations, including the Bethlehem Club."
When he died in 1938, he left the bulk of his estate – 51 Lehigh Valley properties – to Lehigh. Subsequently, the multi-million dollar Brodhead endowment was established, and Brodhead House, the university’s first high-rise residence, was dedicated to his memory in 1979."
If you are member of Ancestry.com, you can find more info on Albert Brodhead there and here.
New Vernacular Photos
Happy Easter Monday. This past weekend my wife and I trekked down to see my family in NW Iowa. On Friday we had the priviledge of meeting up with my undergraduate printmaking professor from Northwester College, John Kaericher and his wife.
We also had the opportunity on Saturday afternoon hit a few of the antique shops around the Spirit Lake, IA region and I picked up two little photographs.
They are not all that unique or rare, but both made me chuckle. Both do display a few typical motifs, if you want to call them that. In the first image, a partially seen mother holds the child head upright. Often in pictures of children at such a young age you may find an arm or emerging from the side to help balance the wobbly child or even see the form of the mother having been draped with a cloth in the background. This one however makes no attempt to disguise the mother's presence. In the other image, a child contemplates another photograph...a motif I've mentioned before here. I doubt that this image is a mourning photograph, but it does make for an adorable image of the little girl in what looks like a velvet dress.
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Last week was spring break here at UND which coincides with midterm. Even though I am no longer a degree seeking student, I still measure time according to the university calendar. It has been a busy and productive first half of the semester with the production of a significant body of work.
Since graduating last May, I've been thinking about this series...perhaps even earlier as it actually utilizes aspects of other projects. I wanted to take the idea and execution of the prints that I did for the books in the MFA exhibition and put them into a format similar to the large translucent cyanotype landscapes that hung out from the wall without a frame. I reworked the hanging process to a more suitable and minimal method.
Overall, I am fairly happy with these pieces. Doing the work, the process of hanging it, and simply the look of it on the wall suggests new directions and possibilities that I hope to work on perhaps yet this semester.
Yesterday I posted a link to a great site dedicated to mourning photography. I dont think that this is a mourning photograph. But what strikes me about this wonderful little cased Ambrotype is the lace pinned in the verso cover. It is stained and stiff with age. It is pinned in with very sturdy pins. I wonder, and there is not way to know, if this little piece of lace is from the dress of the child in the photo. It would make sense given the practice of often pinning or sewing some form of memento into the the verso that is connected to the person in the image. Often a lock of hair was sewn into the cover. This practice is just fascinating to me. Why is the photograph insufficient as a reminder that there needs to be an addition of something more physical? Is it precisely that...physical?
I've had a few posts recently on some of the photographic oddities that I have collected over the past few years. There are a number of really nice sites out there that cater to these peculiar corners of photo history.
Mourningphotography.com is one such place. For those who are a bit squeamish, this might not be the site for you. But then again there is something quite stunning in the images and in the phenomena of mourning photos. As you look through the photos there you will begin to see certain motifs arise. In the photo offered here, a reduplication of a photo is made. The young girl holds a photo of the deceased person...the photo becomes a surrogate for the once living. It is a tangible reminder of that person. Here is a similar tin-type from my own collection.
Tomorrow I will post another from my own collection with an interesting variable.
Victorian String Art II
The other day I posted a similar string object. This one is about 2.5 times larger than the other and is in better condition. While this one is larger, it is still a similar but more hardy construction. This one also has pins with a significant white head on the star points to hold the threads in place. I was curious about how old the piece is so slid the now stiff threads aside and considerable fading has occurred to the piece. So I know that it is old...just not how old.
When preparing for the MFA exhibition, I was purchasing large photo lots from EBay to fill out the installation pieces. When I would get the lots I would skim through them looking for interesting photos, themes, etc that I would eventually hold back for my own collection. I found this interesting piece on one of those large lots. I've titled this posting "Vintage Photoshopping" as a joke, but there is some photographic trickery going on within the image. My hunch is that this is photographic object is really the combination of 3 different photographs cut and rephotographed and printed.
There are several clues...First, check out the infant...its placement within the photo, the strange highlight on its left side and how the dress is cut on the infants right side all suggest that this is a later addition to the photographs of the couple beneath. Second, I suspect that the images of the couple beneath are really 2 images rather than one. She appears to far forward compared to him. Also, I suspect the images come from different times based on the dress of the two...though I cannot be sure on this. And would these two even be a couple? She appears much younger than him. But there is also something amiss with the lighting...notice how in the center of the image, it is much darker, likely the cause of a little darkroom dodging and burning. Lastly, notice the shadow created from the yellowed photographic object on my whiter background. Now look within the photograph itself. To me, I see a similar shadow burned into the image below the child and in the upper left corner.
To me, all of these little peculiarities seem to add up to a touched up photo that combines multiple objects taken at different times. But why might someone have such a photo made? Could the photo have been made by the gentleman for the child after the mother had passed away? There could have been some years between which might give some reason for the disparity of age and clothing. But alas we do not know.
Victorian String Art
Over Christmas break on our trip to California, we spent a day up around Sonora. We hit a few antique stores and I happened upon this little hand-made piece. From what I can gather it falls under Victorian string art. It is roughly a star-shaped piece of cardboard with a photo affixed and wound in in some kind of thread. I am guessing that by the kinks in the thread extending above the piece, it was further wound but has become undone. The second photo shows the complexity of the string winding.
While I really dont know much about this type of art yet (as in how it was used etc.), I have found another similar piece which I will post in a few days.
Mourning Tintype Photograph
This is one of my favorite photo pieces. After you examine enough historical photos and a little more research, you begin to recognize certain motifs that seem to pop up again and again. Often studio portraits involve someone holding a book or a hat as a prop. Others have a curious addition of another photograph. Sometimes they are sitting on a table. Sometimes they are held. Sometimes they sit on an empty chair. I find these objects fascinating for many reasons, but one being the re-duplication of an image...an early form of re-photography. But why did this motif emerge? In some it seems like the photographed subject is merely contemplating the image, but others have a much emotive tale. Frequently the photograph is used as a substitute or surrogate reminder of someone who is no longer living. Were we able to zoom in more to the photo in this child's hands we may well find it to be an image of a sibling or more likely her father who is now deceased. These photos fall into an fascinating niche of photo history often called "mourning photography".