In her 1925 self portrait, photographer Germaine Krull (1897-1985) keeps her face mostly hidden and in soft focus, while her camera dominates the foreground and a cigarette, held between her fingers, provides remarkable balance. It’s a complex image in which she defines herself through the tool of her art, but reveals a great deal more in the hands, the jewelry, the tailored dress. And the cigarette itself, at that moment of history, asserts an at-the-edge sort of independence. The dangling ash that is about to fall and the shutter that is about to click add a temporal element to the powerful composition, with its crisscrossing diagonals and the bifurcated center of black camera and white flesh. It is a photograph that is arresting today; one can only imagine its power in 1925 to eyes less accustomed to such images.
The woman’s break with her oppressive pre-war image, her new liberties and her new vocational prospects, the shape and scope of which were still extremely unclear, found expression in the multitude of self-portraits taken by female photographers of the 1920s in an attempt at defining and asserting their new identity.
Germaine Krull was the very prototype of the “New Woman”: a young entrepreneuse – she had set up her own portrait studio in Berlin in 1923/24 (together with Gretel and Kurt Hübschmann) – with bobbed haircut, cigarette and bisexual inclinations, she almost ideally conformed to the typical image of the “New Woman” as portrayed week be week – whether admiringly or otherwise – in the art periodicals, women’s magazines and illustrated weeklies of the Weimar Republic.
In 1925, Germaine Krull photographed herself in a mirror with a hand-held camera which half-covered her face. The camera is focused on the foreground of the image, such that the lens and the two hands holding the camera are sharp, while the face behind the camera is blurred. This self-portrait has given rise to many a feminist or professionally critical interpretation, ranging from the female domestication “of the masculinity of technical apparatus” through to the analogy of the camera with a weapon used by the photographer to “reduce the person opposite her […] to an impotent object”. However, if we attempt to interpret the photograph not so much in a figurative sense as in a concrete, phenomenal sense, we arrive at a completely opposite conclusion. By selecting the depth of field in such a way that only the camera and the hands are sharp, Germaine Krull has isolated her act of photographing from her subjectivity and individuality as the photographer. It is the technical apparatus, the camera, which is the focal point of the image and behind which the photographer’s face is blurred beyond recognition. We may assume that this physiognomical retreat behind the camera is less a typical feminine gesture of shyness and reticence than the characteristically ideological approach of a modernist photographer. There is one critical point in Krull’s portrait of herself as a photographer which gives us good reason to make this assumption, namely the fusion of the photographer’s eye with the “oculus artificialis” of the camera. The notion that the camera lens could not only replace the human eye as a means of capturing the world visually but also improve upon its ability to penetrate reality to its invisible depths was paradigmatic of the new, basically positivist photographic aesthetic of the 1920s. It is an aesthetic defined by the Bauhaus theorist László Moholy-Nagy in his manifesto “Painting Photography Film” in 1925 and visualized by countless collages, posters and book covers of the 1920s and 1930s depicting the camera lens as a substitute for the human eye. Germaine Krull’s self-portrait wholly identifies with this new photographic aesthetic, too. Indeed, her influential work “Métal”, a photographic eulogy of modern technology published in 1928, is its embodiment.
From the earlier twenties there are a series of nude studies and explorations of Lesbian sexual images, reflecting the open, experimental spirit of Weimar Germany (one reviewer has likened to as "satires of lesbian pornography"). Krull never worried whether what she was doing was photojournalism or "commercial" photography or art, a parallel to Kurt Weill, the great composer from the same period who was never concerned about whether his work was defined as opera or popular stage music.
Germaine Krull, Nude with Gloves, 1935
Photographer: Eli Lotar
Germaine Krull, Publicité pour Paul Poiret, 1926
Les Amies de Chambre c.1924
Bicycle wheels, Roues de vélo, Circa 1929