Archives for April 2014

posted in April, 2014

anders petersen and cafe lehmitz

From the Guardian’s series My Best ShotAnders Petersen explains this photo’s backstory and offers this advice: ‘People always talk about having to be strong. But for me, you have to be weak – weak enough to feel, to be involved, to be as you are. Don’t be strong, be weak.’

Anders Petersen, Lilly and Rose

It was one in the morning and I was waiting for my friend Gertrude at Cafe Lehmitz in Hamburg. The place was chock full of people and there was great music playing on the jukebox. It was 1967. A man came up to me and asked about my camera, which was on the table. It was a Nikon F and I said it was a good camera. He said: “I have a nicer one.” His was a Kodak Retina 1C. We raised our beers and said cheers to the cameras. Then we danced with some beautiful ladies.

Suddenly, across the room, I noticed a group of people were throwing my camera back and forth, taking pictures of each other. I went over and said: “Please take a picture of me because it’s my camera.” OK, they said, then handed it back. So I took some pictures of my own – and that was how I started photographing in Cafe Lehmitz.

I kept taking shots there for the next three years, travelling back and forth to Stockholm, where I was studying photography, to develop my film. At the cafe, I would sleep in the kitchen for free, in exchange for looking after the cook’s children. My time there was very formative. The cafe even staged my first exhibition: I pinned 350 pictures above the bar and said if anyone recognised themselves they could take the picture down and keep it. After a few days the walls were empty.

This picture is all about the personalities. Lilly was everyone’s darling, a charismatic woman – many men were in love with her, and she knew it. The man on the left was known as Rose because of the tattoo on his chest. He was well dressed because he had come from work, a restaurant 10 minutes away. Every night, he would come to Cafe Lehmitz to see his friends, but mostly to see Lilly. Rose was a serious guy, and he only had eyes for her. Lilly was angry with me when I took this picture because I had been photographing her so much. She said: “Can’t you just behave like normal – have a beer and be like everyone else? Do you have to take pictures all the time? Please finito, now!” You see the little guy behind her? That is Scar. He was a very famous sword-swallower. He talked about it a lot and he got into a lot of fights – but he was still a nice man.

All sorts of people went to Cafe Lehmitz: locals, people from the harbour and surrounding cities, as well as a lot of elderly prostitutes from the St Pauli area. Old people went there who had had a hard life and were not accepted anywhere else. I took hundreds of photographs – it’s like a family album – but this one is special. I like these three characters and they are being themselves.

shell shock cinema

In the introduction to Shell Shock Cinema: Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War, author Anton Kaes explains the premise of his book and argument:

This book is not about the Great War but rather its tragic aftermath. The term ‘shell shock,’ which doctors used to diagnose frontline soldiers suffering nervous breakdowns, provides a metaphor for the invisible though lasting psychological wounds of World War I. Some of the most seminal German movies made in the 1920s found artistic expression for this elusive yet widespread syndrome. Just as shell shock signified a broad array of symptoms, the movies of this shell shock cinema took on a variety of forms. . . .

Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Nosferatu, a Symphony of Horror, and Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen and Metropolis, all of which are hallmarks of Weimar film culture, represent the most prominent examples of this shell shock cinema. Articulating an indirect, but more poignant understanding of trauma than many traditional war movies, these films translate military aggression and defeat into domestic tableaux of crime and horror. They transform vague feelings of betrayal, sacrifice, and wounded pride into melodrama, myth, or science fiction.

He then explores the relationship between trauma and aesthetic strategies:

A traumatic event inscribes itself and becomes stored in the body without the mind having any overt awareness of its presence. The trauma returns involuntarily by way of flashbacks, repetition compulsions, and psychosomatic illnesses. Precisely because a traumatic shock eludes conscious understanding, it is not directly accessible to memory or speech; it constitutes a ‘failure of symbolization.’ Traumatic experience manifests itself only through its symptoms, and therefore requires that its meaning be constructed retroactively. Three of the four films discussed in this book have narrators who are struggling to reconstruct a traumatic event in the past. These films provide the opportunity to work through that repressed shock from the perspective of the present.

Forced to find a language for extreme psychological states, shell shock films developed aesthetic strategies that pushed the limits of visual representation. In their fragmented story lines and distorted perspectives, their abrupt editing and harsh lighting effects, they mimic shock and violence on the formal level. Shell shock cinema thus contributed to the emergence of a modernist film language that shaped the look of film noir at the end of World War II, and that continues to inspire Hollywood’s horror and science fiction movies today.

Kaes then explains how his perspective differs from Siegfried Kracauer‘s.

My project thus seeks to reverse the perspective of Siegfried Kracauer’s influential book From Caligari to Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film, published by Princeton University Press in 1947. . . .

Kracauer’s use of film as an instrument of sociopolitical analysis was pathbreaking and fully warranted given its immediate postwar context. His method comes at a cost, however, because his persistent ‘back-shadowing’ views history from its catastrophic endpoint, and thus diminishes the contradictory fullness of the discrete historical moment. According to his overarching teleology, all Weimar cinema points forward to fascism. . . . In order to sustain the master narrative from Caligari to Hitler, Kracauer must downplay not only the diversity of Weimar production but also the aesthetic complexity of individual works. Films are never organic, unified wholes carrying a single message. Rather, they are fractured entities that must be read, like all products of the unconscious, by means of their omissions and silences. I am no less interested than Kracauer in explaining why Weimar’s modernity ended in the grip of a fascist system; my emphasis, though, is on the ways in which films after 1918 allude to, displace, and relive the experience of war and defeat. For me, Weimar culture is as much post-traumatic as it is pre-fascistic for Kracauer. The Weimar Republic could have ended differently, and films give us glimpses of this alternative history.

Kaes integrates the psychological, aesthetic, political and historical aspects of shell shock cinema and makes a compelling and very original argument. I’ll write more about this book in future posts.

caligariThe Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

metropolisMetropolis (1927)

eugene atget

Six photos of Paris by Atget, from two books: Paris – Eugene Atget published by Taschen and Atget by John Szarkowski, published by MoMA. The latter book includes 100 plates with text by Szarkowski, much of which I found overwritten to the point of being intrusive. A typical example is his last paragraph accompanying the first photograph in the gallery below; it adds a layer of speculation that is not only indulgent, it distracts from the experience of viewing the photo.

Across the street from the Gobelins factory is a department store. Department stores changed the traditional ways of commerce and social interchange, and were therefore perhaps as unsettling and offensive to Atget–on the level of cultural and political principle–as shopping malls have been in our time to photographers such as Robert Adams. Nevertheless, it is wrong and self-defeating to photograph badly the subjects of which one disapproves. In fact, for a photographer as serious as Atget, it might be necessary to photograph a subject as well as he can before he knows what he thinks of it.

While Szarkowski does provide valuable context to many of the photographs, he too often, in passages like the above, tries to dazzle us with his references and asides, but ends up competing with Atget on the page. I much preferred the essay ‘Archive of Visions – Inventory of Things’ by Andreas Krase in the Taschen book.