Photographer, Witness to Her Era
“There are few artists born under the sign of the darkroom, the sign of the rainbow lens, the sign of the objective. She is one of a small troop that once forged a path for Man Ray . . . She and her darkroom open up a new world—a world in which technology and the soul permeate each other.” (Jean Cocteau)
“The photographer is a witness. The witness to his era. The real photographer is the witness to every single day, the reporter.” (Germaine Krull)
“Germaine, you and I are the greatest photographers of our time,” Man Ray once said to his fellow photographer. Walter Benjamin and Jean Cocteau sat for Germaine Krull and were also among her admirers: Benjamin included her in his Short History of Photography, ranking her alongside artists such as August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt. He valued Krull’s radical visual aesthetic and her political as well as humane attitude. Jean Cocteau extolled her when he said that she used her camera to “discover a new world, in which technology and soul permeate each other.” If nothing else, these assessments by famous contemporaries are evidence of her reputation as one of Modernism’s most important photographers. Despite her innovativeness and the extraordinary abundance of her work, her achievements have gone underappreciated to this day. Her photographs were scattered in various archives and therefore rarely accessible to the public. Retrospectives in Paris and Berlin in 2015/16, as well as a companion publication, are helping us to (re) discover this avant-garde photographer from the interwar period.
Krull led an unconventional, nomadic, adventurous life: born to German parents in Wilda, East Prussia (now Poland) in 1897, she grew up in Italy, France, and Switzerland. In 1915 she began her education at the Lehr- und Versuchsanstalt für Photographie, Chemie, Lichtdruck und Gravüre (Teaching and research institute for photography, chemistry, photoengraving and engraving) in Munich. At the age of just 21 she opened her first photography studio in Schwabing, where she shot Pictorialism-style portraits and interiors. In 1918 Krull joined the Spartacists’ November Revolution, and after being deported, made her way to Russia, where she was imprisoned for political activism. After returning to Germany she decided to work with Kurt Hübschmann at his portrait studio in Berlin. Some of the few surviving pictures from this early period are of female nudes whose sexual content divests them of the conventions of classic nude portraits, as well as pictures of Sonia Delaunay’s fashion designs. In 1925 she moved to Amsterdam and then to Paris with the Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, who later became her husband.
There, at the age of 29, she blossomed as a photographer. She enjoyed great success in 1927/28 with the publication of her book of photographs, Métal. Her unusual pictures of technical buildings and industrial plants—the Eiffel Tower, cranes and hydraulic lifts in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Citroën factory, the power plant in Saint-Ouen—catapulted her into the foremost ranks of internationally known, avant-garde photographers, the Neues Sehen, or New Vision, movement. With their bold, occasionally confusing framing and unusual, extreme perspectives or double exposures, the pictures told of a fascination for technology. René Zuber, one of Moholy-Nagy’s students, rhapsodized over the new mechanical aesthetic produced when Krulll “pointed her camera at the sky, photographing the Eiffel Tower from bottom to top.” The photographer wrote about her life in Paris during the 1930s and her practice of photography in autobiographical writings, talking about the “peak of happiness,” for example, when walking around Rotterdam’s harbor. “Everything was made of steel; I loved walking along the pier and watching the ships being loaded and unloaded; seeing how it worked was something completely new to me. I wanted to see it show its strength, wanted to capture it on my film.”
Working as a team with the photographers André Kertész and Éli Lotar, Germaine Krull pioneered the new profession of photojournalist. From the late 1920s onward she provided magazines such as VU and Variétés—to name only a couple of the most prominent ones—with works in a new style: carrying a small Icarette, she strolled the (nighttime) streets, markets, peripheries of Paris taking pictures—in an often casual way—of women selling fruits, vegetables, and fish, of female laborers, gypsies and nomads, clochards and homeless people. She undertook countless journeys for her photojournalism, going to places such as Brittany or the south of France, and soon she had a “large, ready collection of travel and street photography,” which she was able to publish in magazines in France and abroad. Krull experienced her greatest media success between 1928 and 1930; for instance, her biggest client, VU, published 281 of her pictures in 70 issues.
Aside from that, Krull also showed her work at important international exhibitions, including the big Werkbund show, Film und Foto, which, under the leadership of Moholy-Nagy, presented Modernist photography from Europe and the United States in 1929. She published books of photography—besides Métal (1927/28), for instance, 100 x Paris (1929), Études de nu (1930), Le Valois (1930), and Marseille (1935), which was a high-quality rotogravure book. She received lucrative advertising jobs: the operators of the power plants at Saint Ouen (1928) and Issy-les-Moulnieaux (1929), and the automakers Citroën and Peugeot (1929) engaged the young photographer, who had become the muse of iron and machinery. Krull shot unusual photographs of the hands of Colette, André Gide, Jean Cocteau, Walter Benjamin, and André Malraux, and produced the pictures for the first-ever illustrated detective novel, La Folle d’Itteville (1931), working with Georges Simenon.
Post 1931 Krull received only a few lucrative commissions from magazines and advertisers, probably due to the Great Depression. She moved to Monte Carlo, where she worked from time to time as a casino or local freelance photographer. After the outbreak of World War II, she briefly spent time in Rio de Janeiro, where she joined Charles de Gaulle’s resistance movement, France Libre; later, she moved to Brazzaville in the Congo, via Cape Town. There, she took pictures “of the jungle and scenes of natives, and I know that they are among some of the best pictures I’ve ever taken,” as Krull herself said. As a war reporter, she documented the Battle of Alsace in late 1944, and the liberation of the concentration camp in Vaihingen, near Stuttgart, in 1945.
Even after the war her commissions remained unprofitable, and Krull moved to Asia in 1946, where she became the manager of the oldest hotel in Bangkok, the Hotel Oriental (founded in 1876). Over the years she assiduously approached the Buddhist cultural legacy with her camera, photographing Burmese and Thai temples, statues, and art objects. She started her own publishing label to produce a new book of photography: Chiang Mai (around 1960).
It was not until 1966 that she sold her share of the hotel and returned to Poissy, near Paris. In 1968 she settled in north India and lived there in an old temple with followers of the Tibetan Dalai Lama. Krull considered her photographs from these years—which she also published in the book Tibetians in India (1968)—as “an appreciation of Tibetan wisdom,” a hymn of praise to “the timeless spirituality of humanity.” Shortly before her death, the German-born photographer returned to Wetzlar, in Hesse, Germany, where she died in 1985 at the age of 87.
04.02.2016 Stefanie Gommel