‘ Isolating the unguarded human moment within the ebb and flow of history ‘
‘My aim is to document things that everyone can see if they want to but that people do not really notice in the course of their everyday lives… To record the unspectacular, something that takes place in public everywhere and is able to tell part of the story of our lives …’ — Barbara Klemm
Photojournalism is a strange beast. With its origins in war photography, the medium straddles the documentary aspirations of reportage and the loftier aspirations of artistic photography – with the best examples able to move seamlessly from one to the other. Such is the case with the images that make up the current exhibition at the Stills gallery, ‘Leap in Time’: Erich Salomon & Barbara Klemm. Organised in conjunction with the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen/Institute for Cultural Relations (IFA), Germany, and the Goethe-Institut, Glasgow, this exhibition presents the work of two of Germany’s most profoundly influential and sensitive photographers. Though there is no overlap in the careers of Salomon and Klemm, together their work provides a deep, poignant and multifaceted view of twentieth century German life.
Upon entering the exhibition space at Stills many visitors will be tempted to linger among the more recognisable and recent subjects of Barbara Klemm’s work in the front gallery. For the sake of chronology, however, I would recommend charging through to the rear gallery and beginning with the work of Erich Salomon. Though he took to photography late in life, Salomon’s innovations came to dominate the golden age of photojournalism, including coining the phrase “the candid camera” and pioneering “hidden camera” techniques in his work – famously cutting a hole for the camera lens in his bowler hat. With his education, wealth and social standing, Salomon found easy access to the highest echelons of Weimar society. Such access allowed him to photograph scenes such as the Reichstag debating chamber, private meeting rooms at the League of Nations and The Hague, imbuing the scenes with a reality and a human urgency that leaves the printed word behind.
Salomon’s social access extended beyond politics, and the exhibition includes candid and personal photographs of contemporary celebrities, including an intimate photograph of Marlene Dietrich on the telephone with her daughter. Even without celebrity subjects, Salomon’s work is characterised by his ability to capture unguarded moments, those opportunities to peek behind the curtain of public events and see the actors as fellow human beings.
Barbara Klemm’s portion of the exhibition, which occupies the front gallery, the stairwell and the reception area one floor below, beautifully parallels that of Erich Salomon. Though Klemm’s career spanned from the 1960s through to the 1990s, the loose groupings of celebrity, politics, society, and social commentary retain their power. Working at a time when photojournalism had become codified as a profession, there are necessarily differences between Klemm’s work and Salomon’s, but Klemm nonetheless shares Salomon’s gift for isolating the unguarded human moment within the ebb and flow of history. She possesses an uncanny ability to capture the individual at a moment when they stand for something greater than themselves.
Nowhere is this skill more evident than in Klemm’s political photography. Covering the tumultuous period surrounding Germany’s reunification, Klemm’s photographs manage to display great tension and joy, but they also find moments of stillness and contemplation – often within the same image. Among my personal favourites is the photograph, View Over the Wall, Berlin 1977. Here the ominous, monolithic imagery of the Berlin wall dominates the space, while the mood is gently subverted by the presence of two men casually standing and chatting atop an unmanned watchtower while a young boy playfully perches on the tower railing.
Notably, within this exhibition of twentieth century German photography there are few overt references to the Second World War. In fact, the Nazis make a lone, foreboding appearance in Salomon’s photograph National Socialists in Their Party Uniform in the Reichstag, Berlin, 30 October 1930. From a purely practical perspective this was because Salomon didn’t photograph them; he largely disregarded the Nazis and considered their actions unworthy of his interest. He was able to leave Germany for Holland and worked in The Hague but was detained during the Occupation. He died in Auschwitz in July 1944.
This is not to say that the war is ignored by the exhibition; its antecedents and effects are as present in both photographers’ work as they are in the lives they photographed. Rather, the effect of this absence on the exhibition is akin to that of the candid portraiture in both artists’ work. The goal of such photography is to catch the rarely seen side of a subject we’ve seen so often that we feel we know it. The combined work of Barbara Klemm and Erich Salomon create a complex portrait of Germany that is often overlooked, shining a light on the more private, unguarded and human side of the country’s recent history.
Reviewer: Michelle Lee Leonard
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