The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and Twentieth-Century German History

By Magilow, Daniel H. | German Quarterly, Fall 2018 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and Twentieth-Century German History


Magilow, Daniel H., German Quarterly


Evans, Jennifer, Paul Betts, and Stefan Ludwig Hoffmann, editors. The Ethics of Seeing: Photography and Twentieth-Century German History. Berghahn, 2018. 306 pp. $150/?107 (hardcover).

In her 1977 classic On Photography, Susan Sontag wrote that "photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing" (3). The eminent German historians Jennifer Evans, Paul Betts, and StefanLudwig Hoffmann draw on Sontag for the title of their co-edited essay collection for good reason. The chronologically organized essays, which encompass a wide cross-section of themes from twentieth-century German history, share a common goal: "[to] explore the ways in which photographs help to constitute the word historically and scientifically, as well as emotionally, while also shaping-and sometimes limiting-individual as well as collective perceptions and ways of seeing" (5). This volume's central thesis, in other words, is that photography has not only documented twentieth-century German history. It has also played an active role in shaping that history because of the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions that determined who held cameras, what they aimed them at, when they released the shutters, who banned or allowed the images, where those images appeared, who saw them, and how these photographs were understood. Photography is both a record and an historical agent.

As with many essay volumes, the chapters' methodologies vary and some arguments are more convincing than others, but The Ethics of Seeing largely succeeds in modeling how approaches that transcend naive faith in photographic indexicality can enrich the study of German history. In one early chapter, for instance, Annelie Ramsbrock offers a compelling interpretation of Ernst Friedrich's Krieg dem Kriege!, a 1924 photobook showing gruesomely disfigured World War I veterans that its editor used to mobilize antiwar sentiments. Ramsbrock argues that photographic signification depends on the contexts of its deployment and shows how the anarchist-pacifist Friedrich mined medical publications for photographs showing war veterans before and after reconstructive surgery. For his photobook, however, he rewrote captions, omitted "after" images, and used only the "before" ones for greater shock value.

Another insightful chapter, Julia Torrie's essay "Visible Trophies of War," reconstructs the conditions of photography in France during World War II and demonstrates that invisible factors profoundly impact how images from this time and place generate meanings. Torrie notes that because the French were legally prohibited from photographing outside, even banal images like those of German soldiers posing before the Eiffel Tower did more than just record touristic experience. The very act of taking a picture conspicuously demonstrated German power. "Each time they pressed their shutter releases," Torrie writes, "occupying soldiers 'captured' France and its inhabitants anew, reinforcing the power relations inherent in a military takeover" (117).

Unsurprisingly, photography from Germany's wars in Europe and colonized South West Africa and these wars' aftermaths are a central focus of the volume's chapters. A second thematic interest is photography in East Germany and the challenges that photographs from this milieu presented to official visual culture. Candice M. Hamelin's study of the art photographer Gundula Schulze-Eldowy and her intimate portraits of East Berlin's downtrodden argues that these images showed how GDR society consisted not only of "happy, healthy and successful citizens contributing to and benefitting from their socialist society" but also of individuals on the margins (244). This still comparatively unknown photographer's powerful work, which by turn evokes August Sander, Diane Arbus, Annie Liebowitz, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, offers a case study for examining the ethics of seeing in the putative workers' paradise. …

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