In a self-portrait taken in 1933, undoubtedly the most erotic self-portrait of a woman photographer of the 1920s and 1930s, this Berlin photographer poses, with her cable release in her hand, as a young woman obviously skilful at the game of concealing and revealing. She has deliberately opened her fashionable, fur-trimmed housecoat in order to view her beautiful naked body on the ground-glass screen of the camera. As she is standing to one side of the mirror, her face is hidden by her hair, heightening still further the subtle eroticism of this photograph. Her gaze into the viewfinder of the camera, as though refusing to look herself and, by the same token, the imagined viewer in the eye as she performs her exhibitionist act, seems modest and outdated compared with the erotic self-portraits of women photographers today. At once narcissistic and voyeuristic, this self-portrait is less an occupational portrait of the kind intended for publication – we know of no publication of this photograph prior to 1979 – than a private study of a young woman photographer using her professional skills to explore, and take delight in, the eroticism of her appearance.
Although the shadow has a significant part to play in the mythical origins of drawing and painting – according to Pliny, it was the Greek potter Butades who created the first portrait bust after his daughter had traced the shadow of her lover’s face on the wall (“Naturalis historia”)-, it did not figure at all in the photography of the 19th century. It was not until the inception of photographic modernism, which evolved from the awareness of its autonomy, that photography discovered the shadow as the very essence of the photographic image – hence the enormous number of shadow photographs during the 1920s and 1930s. With the development of the technique of cameraless photography, the white, “negative” silhouette became an autonomous form of artistic expression (“Rayographs” by Man Ray and “photograms” by László Moholy-Nagy). The photographic print itself may be compared to a shadow, for it unites the dialectic of presence and absence. Indeed, is it not the photograph, this modern expression of permanence resulting from an exposure of but a fleeting moment, which has something just as ephemeral about it as a shadow? With just a few exceptions, all the photographers of modernism, men and women alike, have photographed themselves as shadows. One of the first was Alfred Stieglitz, who captured his and a friend’s shadow on the surface of a stretch of water in 1916. Lucia Moholy, Ilse Bing and Imogen Cunningham likewise photographed themselves as projected shadows. In one of Gisèle Freund’s earliest self-portraits, taken in 1929, her face blends with the shadow of a friend; Lucia Moholy merged her face with that of her husband László Moholy-Nagy to form one single silhouette in a photogram made in 1926.
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
Les Amies de Chambre c.1924
Bicycle wheels, Roues de vélo, Circa 1929
Ilse Bing, who decided to take up the profession of photographer in 1929, portrayed herself in 1931 in the traditional style of an occupational portrait. As a former student of art history, Ilse Bing was undoubtedly familiar both with the famous “mirror paintings” of van Eyck, Parmiganino and Velazquéz and with the genre of the “self-portrait of the artist in his studio”. In this self-portrait, the tripod and camera have replaced the painter’s palette and easel. The photographer has mounted her Leica on a table tripod and is looking across the top of the camera into the mirror so as not to lose sight of herself behind the viewfinder, obviously not wishing to view this self-portrait with camera through the camera itself. Unlike Germaine Krull – and, later, Andreas Feininger – Bing rejected the absolute identification of the eye and/or entire person of the photographer with the camera lens. Her somewhat aloof attitude towards the Constructivist ideal of the artist-engineer was altogether in keeping with her work as a photojournalist which was on the whole more akin to Kertész than to Moholy-Nagy and conveyed rather a romantically poetical than a Constructivist view of the world.
By integrating into her full-face mirror image a second image in profile, Ilse Bing creates a complex interplay of lines and angles of vision. Not only does she herself appear both as the subject and as the object of the work – as the viewer and the viewed – in two different perspectives, but she also guides the viewer’s gaze in a peculiarly circular manner, making the viewer the mirror, as it were, of her own self. Ever since Cubism, polyperspectivity has been part and parcel of the repertoire of modernism. In merging the full-face and profile images of herself, Ilse Bing indeed demonstrates the height of photographic modernism. The production of multiple portraits with the aid of mirrors had been the favourite pastime of amateur photographers since the turn of the century, the technique having been exhaustively described in many manuals on leisure and recreational photography. As an example of the use of this mirror technique in art, Marcel Duchamp’s quintuple self-portrait of 1917 has achieved a certain degree of fame. Bing’s “Self-portrait with Leica”, however, is more than just a “jeu de miroirs”, for the second, profile image also reveals another side to this woman photographer’s personality. The paradigmatic change in the modern photographic aesthetic of the 1920s, a change characterized by the rejection of the traditional principles of painting (Pictorialism) in favour of the scientific ideal of extended perception (Constructivism), was no isolated photo-historical phenomenon. It was bound up with a general utopian ideology which saw its revolutionary strength for the creation of a new human society not in any political struggle but rather in technology. It was not until this ideology finally exercised its influence that the photographic lens gained primacy over the human eye. “The hoped-for change in the world will […] come: not through politics – but through technology; not through a revolutionary, but through an inventor,” announced Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, a cultural philosopher and visionary, in his book “Practical Idealism. Aristocracy-Technology-Pacifism” in 1925. The same view was expressed by Moholy-Nagy in “Painting Photography Film” in the same year: “The engineer has the machine in his hands,” he writes, “satisfying immediate needs. But basically much more: he is the initiator of the new stratum of society, the paver of the way for the future”. It was against this background that for many a theorist the photographer was the very embodiment of the Constructivist ideal of the artist-engineer.