Picturing the Volk

Photography, like other modern inventions and ideas, was readily utilised in the promulgation of political and ideological concepts in Germany between the two world wars. In line with the development and use of analytical and supposedly ‘objective’ (including documentary) photography in other parts of the world, a variety of paradigms were employed as a broad and systematic document of the German people. In addition to the influence of modernist trends in photography, many German photographers incorporated typological approaches that developed from a metaphysical and esoteric basis. The photographic focus on the physiognomy of Germany that preoccupied so many of the photographers in this period, was not solely because of National Socialist ideology indeed it very much predated it. Even during the National Socialist period, photographic (and often populist) racial studies of ‘types’ (appearing in books and journals such as ‘Volk und Rasse’) were not always produced under the direct auspices of the Reich Ministry for Propaganda but rather they were often made in an ostensibly independent mode and thus appeared to have a greater degree of creative freedom.*

Unlike many documentary studies made during the Depression-era, under National Socialism, it is not images of plight that were desired but rather a celebration of the vitality of the peasant and a physiognomic presentation that often reflects the esoteric and völkisch milieu so influential in Germany at that time. Such photographs were situated as a counterpoint to the perceived deleterious effects of Weimar cosmopolitanism and urban living. They extol the virtues of simplicity, unity, identity and purity that formed part of the notion of the German national community.

Many German photographers included this ‘völkisch’ approach in their portfolios, photographers such as Erich Retzlaff, Hans Saebens, Hans Retzlaff and Erna Lendvai-Dircksen.

*See for example: Matthias Weiss, 'Vermessen - fotografische ‘Menscheninventare’ vor und aus Zeit des Nationalsozialismus' in: Maßlose Bilder: Visual Ästhetik der Transgression. Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 2009, 359.