It was to be expected that my post about the lack of German photography about the Nazi regime, the war and the Holocaust after World War II would ruffle some feathers in my native country. Today I came across this post, which tries to prove that I’m wrong (scroll down for an English version). I was delighted to see the post, especially since it gives me a chance to drive home may main point. (more)
Let’s use the list of books in that post, and let’s list them, sorted chronologically (I’m using the publication dates listed in their post - if there is a book, otherwise, the earliest exhibition date):
Richard Peter sen.: “Dresden - eine Kamera klagt an”, 1949
Boris Becker: Bunker, 1986 (this is when these photos were taken, I was unable to find a date when they were published)
Sigurd Maschke: Der Schwarze Weg, 1991
Reinhard Matz: Die Unsichtbaren Lager, 1993
Arwed Messmer: Der Traum vom Reich, 1993
Dirk Reinartz: Totenstill, 1994
Henning Langenheim: Mordfelder, 1999
Andreas Magdanz: Auschwitz-Birkenau, 2003
Ralf Meyer: Architektonische Nachhut, 2007
I was unable to date Frank Breuer: War Memorials and Norbert Enker: Wolfsschanze, they’re both contemporary artists; there was no specific work given for Thomas Demand (and, honestly, this seems a bit like a stretch to me), and Gerhard Richter is a painter. I also don’t think work about the situation in Berlin or the two German states fits in here; needless to say, you can add them if you want, it doesn’t change the basic result.
So look at that list. There is a fairly impressive list of contemporary German photographers producing work around the war, the Holocaust, and - somewhat indirectly - about the Nazi regime.
The list is incomplete, but what we need to realize is that there is a gap between 1949 and 1986. I don’t think those are the exact dates, but it’s probably safe to say that between approximately 1950 and 1980 there either were no German photographers doing what so many of their contemporary peers are doing now, or they are now completely unknown. And that was my point.
You can compare this with the output of, for example, German writers - I had noted that two of them received a Nobel Prize for that work - German painters, sculptors, or German historians. Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum was published in 1959, the same year that saw Heinrich Böll’s Billiards at Half-past Nine. Gerhard Richter’s Uncle Rudi dates from 1965. Eugen Kogon’s ground-breaking study The SS-State - The System of the German Concentration Camp was published in 1946. We can fill the years between 1950 and 1980 with a lot - but what were German photographers doing? Parr and Badger offer an explanation (see my previous post), which might or might not explain things.
I had conversations about the topic with various people via email. We can’t, of course, change the past. Maybe there will be some undiscovered or forgotten German photography from the period in question. It would be great to see it - should it exist. Regardless of whether or not it does, what we can or rather have to do is to confront the past. In this case what it means is that we simply have to realize that for the most part German photographers decided to set themselves apart during the first thirty years after World War II.
It’s worthwhile trying to find out why that is. There probably is something to be learned here, especially given that the rest of Germany (to be more precise West Germany, since East Germany’s Communist regime pretended it could ignore the German past) has been so actively involved in dealing with its past. In fact, that is why the silence of German photographers right after the war bothers me personally so much: Everybody else was confronting the past. It is true, there was resistance to deal with the past, but regardless of where you look the Bölls and Grasses and Richters and Kogons etc. were having none of that.
The fact that there are so many contemporary German photographers looking at the past is encouraging. Generations removed, they will not be able to do some of the work that their elders refused to do. On top of that, there also are new issues now, such as Germany and the foreigners living there etc. Contemporary German photography now plays a part in talking about German issues. We should be grateful for that.