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Issue 22

Charakteristisches Flattern

On the life and work of photographer Germaine Krull, currently the subject of a retrospective at Berlin’s Martin-Gropius-Bau

BY Ulf Erdmann Ziegler in Profiles | 17 NOV 15

Germaine Krull, A Group of Tibetan Dancers, Tibet, c.1968

Unlike her namesake in Thomas Mann’s novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954), photographer Germaine Krull was not an imposter. On the contrary, as long as she was getting paid, she was not interested in status and didn’t care if she entered the history of photography – whether journalist, illustrator or artist. Unlike reporter Margaret Bourke-White, whose career entered American folklore while it was still unfolding, Krull was indifferent to whether she would be remembered at all. In 1945, Krull took off to Asia and discovered Buddhism. It was only in 1983 that she returned to Europe, where she died in 1985 in the German town of Wetzlar.

Krull’s most famous work is Métal, a book of photographs published in Paris in 1928, actually a portfolio of 64 plates in a linen binder fastened with a black ribbon. Métal offered a wild visual tour of industry and infrastructure, from cranes in the port of Rotterdam to Citroën’s precision engineering workshops in Paris. The same year, Sigfried Giedion published Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete, a survey of construction techniques since the 19th century, which ends with a call for a new architecture. Giedion’s chief concern – how to bring together feeling and thinking in modernism – must have been on Krull’s mind, too.

As a young woman during the revolutionary upheavals in Munich in 1918 and 1919, Krull was a Communist sympathizer; her attendance at the Third World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1921 earned her two spells in prison. Over the next 20 years, she practiced de-ideologization on all levels: she wouldn’t play Bauhaus, conspire with the Surrealists or rhapsodize about industrial progress. She took a little from each, turned the results over like a leaf, and discovered, on the reverse, a synthesis. The highly suggestive Plate 15 in Métal, for example, shows bicycle wheels turning, via multiple exposures, into clockwork. With just a passing allusion to the machine’s function, Krull turns her attention to the materiality of the metal – the dark and the pale, the dull and the shiny, the solid and the delicate. She firmly believed that
for every object there existed a distinct adequate form of photograph. This inevitably led to rapid changes of perspective from picture to picture,
giving the work as a whole its characteristic flicker.

Hans Basler, Germaine Krull, Berlin, 1922

If Krull did have a stylistic trademark, it was the middle distance. When framing her motifs, she would step back a little, including slightly more in the frame than necessary. Her reportage on clochards, published in 1928 in Vu, thus also shows the city of Paris not as a backdrop, but as the personal domain of individuals, including women, along the banks of the Seine. Krull was certainly aware that a picture’s stylistic and emotional impact can be increased by moving in closer. But she left space in her photographs for the viewer. In a highly calculated manner, her pictures of the 1920s and 1930s were a touch too untidy – washed out, grey and dirty.

Krull was born on 28 November 1897 in the then German city of Posen (now Poznań, Poland). Her father, a Hamburg-born engineer and freethinker, had a string of jobs in Bosnia, Austria, Switzerland, Rome and Paris. His family went with him and he taught his eldest daughter himself. The result was a patchwork education and poor spelling. At age nine, in Paris, Krull became a tomboy and started wearing trousers (‘no more curtseying’). At 15, she began a series of sexual relationships with guests at her mother’s boarding house in Munich. Towards the end of World War I, her development became anti-Prussian in every way. After her hellish trip to Moscow she found herself, in January 1921, back in Berlin, initially as the mistress of a reactionary pervert.

It was in Berlin where, together with photographer Kurt Hübschmann, she founded the first of many studios. Her series of two women in a bed, Les Amies (c.1924), was described by the San Francisco Chronicle after her second posthumous retrospective at SFMOMA in 2000 as ‘almost like satires of lesbian pornography’. It seems more probable that Krull actually knew her subject matter: the liveliness of the works’ sexual choreography is still striking today.

Germaine Krull, Plate 15 from Métal, 1928

Among Krull’s papers there are two autobiographical pieces, one written early and the other late in her life, allowing us to grasp her hugely adventurous life, her artistic nomadism, her search for something valid in the sense of life as a total artwork. Yet her photography itself is not as easy to grasp. We know she planned to sell her negatives in 1937, but not where they ended up. As a consequence, gaining an overview of her work involves studying French magazines which used her pictures, like Varieté, Bifur, Vu, Jazz, consulting out-of-print monographs in libraries, and seeking out the ’30s detective novels that she illustrated. There are also her excellent handmade enlargements that served as masters for printing. The Folkwang Museum, which holds her estate, remains the most important source; Kim Sichel’s catalogue Germaine Krull – Avantgarde als Abenteuer, published by the Folkwang in 1999, was the first in-depth appraisal of her life and work.

In 1967, Krull returned to Paris for a short time. With the help of her old friend André Malraux, then France’s minister of culture, she was given a retrospective at the Musée du Cinéma. Before this, people wondered why Walter Benjamin had mentioned ‘Germaine Krull’ in his Short History of Photography (1931) as an example of photography driven by scientific interests. Now the answer gradually came to light. Krull’s rediscovery is a long story, and a definitive assessment of her work has yet to be made. Even printing a new edition of her chef d’oeuvre proved near impossible. As early as 1976, Ann and Jürgen Wilde acquired the rights for a reprint of Métal from the photographer her­-self. But it was not until 2003, with advances in technology, that they found a printer in Belgium who was able to create a convincing facsimile of the original portfolio at a reason­able price. And this facsimile itself is now a collector’s item. This means that one still meets people who are familiar with the work of Walker Evans, or August Sander, but who know Krull only by hearsay.

The majority of her estate, held by the Folkwang, is from her later work, showing temples and figures in Thailand, India, Nepal and Tibet – a treasure that would be best appreciated by ethnological specialists. And perhaps they should take a look. The pictures are not as conventional as people claim because, in typical Krull style, they often show more than just the figure, including a bit of the surroundings, the dusty light – producing pic­tures that seem extraordinarily alive. With this continuity of sub­ject matter, however, her work did lose its characteristic pictorial ‘flicker’. Whereas previously, Krull always asked herself what she was seeing, now she believed what she was seeing.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Germaine Krull – Photographs was on view at the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin, until 31 January 2016.

Ulf Erdmann Ziegler is a writer who lives in Frankfurt am Main. His books include Magische Allianzen. Foto­grafie und Kunst (Magical Alliances: Photography and Art, 1996) and Die Welt als Ganzes. Deutsche Fotografie nach 1989 (The World as One: German Photography After 1989, 2000). His novel Und jetzt du, Orlando! (Over to you, Orlando!, 2014) is published by Suhrkamp.