Archive for Sunday, March 29, 1992


March 29, 1992


Joel Grey, his face painted grotesquely white, sings in a seedy Berlin cabaret. Outside, Nazi Brownshirts menace their opponents.

That's one image of life in Germany in the 1920s, usually called the Weimar period. Decadence ruled art while totalitarian politics rose in the streets.

But other images of Weimar survive workers standing on breadlines looking for work in an economy strangled by rampant inflation and World War I reparations.

In "Camera as Weapon: Worker Photography Between the Wars,'' a current exhibit at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of art, 110 photographs and other images of the German workers' plight show the downside of Weimar Germany.

"THERE WAS a side to Weimar that wasn't cabaret culture,'' said Leah Ollman, a California-based arts writer and curator of the show. "The pictures do sound out a view of the '20s and '30s that was always available in social history books but not seen visually. I know that in the past the focus was on the cabarets and Joel Grey master of ceremonies, but this presents another side of the same issue.''

"Camera as Weapon'' will be on display at the Spencer through May 10. It originated at the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego.

Most of those who first shot these photographs weren't artists, and few if any had artistic pretensions, Ollman said. As an act of social protest, leftist groups such as the Communists outfitted unemployed workers with cameras and told them to take photographs of the surrounding misery.

"THESE PHOTOGRAPHS show very emotional things,'' said Ollman in a recent telephone interview from her home in San Diego. "They show unemployment lines, floors covered with flies. In a way San Diego has some of the same things today with the homeless for example.''

The show features both obscure and well-known German photographers including Kurt Beck and Walter Ballhause, as well as graphic works by George Grosz and Kathe Kollwitz. Many of the photographers courted trouble because the leftist bent of the work coincided with the rise of national socialism and Hitler.

"It was very dangerous material,'' she said. "Some of the men got arrested and sent to jail. It's hard to know what happened to a lot of them. They weren't art people, they didn't really have people who would exhibit this art or vouch for them on the outside. Most of the activity stopped after Hitler came to power.''

TO COMPILE the show, Ollman dug through family trunks and other unusual sources.

"Since people didn't consider them art, they weren't archived in museums,'' she said. "The main sources would be family homes and local archives. It required a lot of digging and networking to locate them. These families were so dispersed by the war. Just to unearth each of them was difficult, and not that many survived.''

Ollman, who studied at Scripps College in California and New York University, became interested in the photographs when she came across a book by Ballhause. Although some of the photographs may have artistic merit, she said, the focus of the show is the historical moment that the images depict.

"These photographers were interested in getting information across to people,'' she said. "They explicitly did not try to make art.''

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