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What can we discover by examining three photos, all of which depict poverty in the early 20th century?. ...
2021-08-24 09:00:00

Documenting Crisis
Three Photos About Poverty

“More Than Bauhaus”, press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków
Documenting Crisis
Documenting Crisis

The testimony to the interwar era presented at the recent Kraków exhibition More Than Bauhaus is difficult to accept. In addition to people, the photos portray poverty, hunger, emaciation. And simultaneously, we the viewers know well that the world presented in these photos will disappear in a moment. This essay about three similar photos, which nevertheless differ significantly, was written for “Przekrój” by Wojciech Nowicki.

Read in 15 minutes

I have here three photos; I saw small prints of them at the exhibition. They were easy to miss. The first two might be by the same photographer, but that’s just an assumption. From the same period, on the same topic: the effects of the Great Depression in 1929–1933 in Germany. The third photo can easily be grouped with the first two, because it’s about a crisis in the same land – but here it’s a different crisis. Not a global one, but an internal, German one, an earlier one. It’s from 1920.

All of the photos, occupying the space between reportage and documentary, were created in the years when press photography didn’t worry about photographers’ names: the person with the camera was just an ordinary piece of equipment. An arduous, neverending job, but also an opportunity for work and pay. During times of poverty, they photograph people suffering poverty, but they do it from the position of people who still have work – and hope. Some are outstanding photographers. During times of crisis they look more closely at people who have found themselves in situations beyond human capability, where it was only possible to count on the mercy of others, or a quick death.

The essence of the problem in the first photo is the devaluation of the currency, and one of its most unexpected effects. Here, in something that looks like a coal cellar, three people operating a Machine pose for the photographer: two adult men and a boy treading on banknotes in the hopper, like chopped cabbage in a barrel. The man on the left is shovelling in more of the paper; the one on the right, the oldest, is turning a wheel to shred the banknotes into strips. As you can see in this technically difficult shot, of necessity lit with a flash, the notes aren’t old or ruined – it’s just that every day (or to be precise, constantly, day and night), they’re losing value at a giddy pace. On the photo we can see, if we look closely, mainly 1000- and 10,000-mark notes. Soon the denominations will reach into the trillions (and beggars will reject notes lower than one million). I’ve read in several places that workers were paid twice a day, at noon and at the end of the working day. That’s how fast the currency’s value was falling. They brought their wages home on trays.

Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków
Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków

There’s also the Machine itself, a device that’s primitive at first glance. Boards, bolts, nuts; a box of thick planks, like one for potatoes – just much more solidly built, and boasting a flywheel. Its operations eliminated the fortunes of everyone, rich or poor. Anyone who had anything lost everything. Based on the decisions of politicians in their great, inaccessible halls, as a result of the hard graft of these three (and many other similar trios). In this photo, there’s also something clearly palpable, a harbinger of a different end. These three workers and this whole mass of freshly invalidated wealth, bound up like old newspapers – in a moment, all of this will go up in smoke.

***

The fate of these three was barely a prelude to the fate of the family – if it is a family, of course – from the next photo. Seven people in what is apparently a workers’ caravan, though the caption indicates it’s a shelter for the homeless. One, of course, doesn’t rule out the other – they could be staying temporarily (because how long will they be sheltered?) in a tight space similar to a railcar. The mother on the left: coiffed, put together, intent on her sewing; next to her stands her son in a cap, with a cup in his hand. The cap indicates a secondary-school student, while the numerous patches on his dark coat and trousers show he’s also a pauper. He tilts this white cup toward himself, leaning his head toward it, apparently checking whether anything’s left inside. Now the four youngest, arranged in two rows: all sitting on a comforter spread out on the floor. At the bottom right, a chubby boy who’s just opened his mouth and is staring at the photographer, not suspecting that in a moment he’ll be blinded by the flash. Next to him, his little brother scribbles something on a slate. Above this pair stand their older sisters, terribly grubby, and what’s more, in dirty aprons, more with an accumulation of dirt than soiled at one go. The list of attendees is rounded out by the oldest of the children, a tween girl, with a face similar to her mother’s – flat, or as we would have said once, boyish. She has a clean, cared-for face and hands, and is grinding something in a hand mill, but her feet are those of someone who goes shoeless. It seems that her dress was sewn from the same material as the boy’s coat and the trousers of the youngest toddler. There’s no man on the horizon.

Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków
Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków

Even that would be enough for a Bolesław Prus novel, or even worse, something out of Maupassant. But unfortunately for us, for all the joy of looking at someone hanging on without great hope, the photo shows much more. Here there are not traces, but an entire system of misfortune crammed under the arched roof of a caravan: a sideboard, a wooden chest, a table with a tattered top; on the chest of drawers, jars, jugs, a cloth, a box for small items, something I can’t recognize, like a large piece of dried meat; inside, dishes and darkness; from the top hangs a kitchen towel. In the box are bowls, newspapers, everything. On the table a hunk of bread on a metal plate (with a matching cup), another piece of bread and a jug. Almost the entire floor is covered with a sheet, on the right hang what seem to be overcoats, covering a small closet, a horrible rumpled hat has popped out from somewhere, behind the oldest girl is a jumble of textiles and two massive legs, perhaps from a bed. An abundance of misery squeezed into a few square metres.

***

The last photograph takes the viewer back in time, but it documents similar people: three men benefiting from food aid, on the steps in front of the door to some building with thick walls and a window like a sharpshooter’s slit. Only men, because the women have a separate soup kitchen, as do children and orphans. There are three of them, sitting right next to each other, but each separately, completely for himself, devoted to himself, without a shadow of notice of the others. They’re all doing the same thing. Which is to say, nothing, really – an everyday activity, in fact unnoticeable.

From a can, a smaller or larger one, something strange like a large can once containing pickles or peas, or a tall, narrow can, maybe once holding marmalade, they carefully eat free soup, finally pouring out the drops onto their spoons. It’s a precious meal, the only one of the day, or maybe one of two – and the other might be thin coffee and a hunk of bread. Three men, removed to various degrees from their former elegance: the one in the middle could be the head of an insurance company, a bank employee; almost everything about him is old-style. All of his elegance is still fresh and visible at first glance: the light hat, three-piece suit and shirt with a starched chest, even a bow tie. There’s a coat, a slightly turned-up moustache, but that’s the last effort: a few days’ growth of beard shows, betraying a lack of care; the grey of the undyed moustache; the sleeves of the coat, its cuffs needing cleaning, while the trouser knees are by now completely white; the trouser cuffs show they’re far from new. The one on the right is similarly dressed, but with some mileage on him, because his clothes hang off him as if from a scrawny bird, demanding to be filled by a well-fed person. He’s got a can as big as a drum. The biggest, as if to mock him. The third, on the left, has obviously been mired in poverty the longest. He has a rumpled and dirty felt hat, a coat that doesn’t seem to be his, too large, whose pocket is misshapen by some kind of bundle. His face hasn’t seen a razor in a long time, and his cane isn’t an accessory, but a necessity. Everything supposedly inherited from a previous life, but it’s not clear whose.

Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków
Press materials, International Cultural Centre in Kraków

The surroundings, the frame of the meal slurped down with the appropriate care, the kind that any soup deserves during years of poverty, tells all the rest: they sit on steps, probably to the kitchen; the old and solid but already ruined brick; the traces of pigeons; the leaning awning; a wall with plaster – crumbling plaster; finally the dented, long-ago painted door. Additionally there’s the zigzag, finger-thin and bare stump of some plant, perhaps a morning glory, perhaps something that died long ago. It’s directly hitting the hat of the man in the middle.

This last photo most fully betrays the press approach to photos: full of retouching, hurried diagonal lines on the lapel of the centre man’s jacket, in fact all over it; on the shoes of the man on the left, to distinguish them from the dirty legs of his trousers (where light lines show the folds); finally a huge part of the clothing of the man eating from the pot is coloured with paint, sometimes darker, sometimes lighter, mixed with ink. It’s the same with the glass in his spectacles – if not for the ink and white paint, they’d disappear into nothingness. The lines and paint describe the contours, setting people and things apart from the surrounding mass. The fault lies with the light coming from above, as it lights up the bright parts while the shadows become abysses, as well as the lack of sharpness, which has fled from the photographer as far as the wall behind the last of our heroes, the one on the right.

***

I search for common characteristics of the pictures described here. There are several common themes, more or less perceptible. I’ve already described the first: crisis (some kind of crisis, more than one, but at a similar time). Its consequences can be seen everywhere, along with the land where it emerged. Second: all the pictures belong to the category of documentary photography, connected here with reportage and illustration. That affects the third theme: their assumed, but highly probably, use in the press. After all, nobody sought a place for these photos on the walls of a gallery, as would surely have happened today.

The fourth theme, which can be disputed, is the possible Bauhaus-adjacent entanglement of this type of photo in Germany. This doesn’t apply to the last photo, the earliest one, unless we understand it as a harbinger of the ferment that will lead to an even more conscious approach to the profession. Photography in Dessau began as a game, the documentation of the life of young people, happy builders (in the strict sense) of their new school, photos from group swims in the river: many of them already had small-format Leicas, and negatives were cheap. At that time, people took photos during wild parties, or more seriously – against the backdrop of a Gropius-defined pavilion – photos were made that were fundamentally close to a family album, if the camera were used by a young person or one who gets pleasure from pictures of women in trees or other creativity. But in the school a true photographic mania dominated – “photographitis”, as the students themselves called it.

Proficiency in photographing any subject (including the documentation of any projects – architectural, design or construction) and in the use of darkroom techniques led to the development of more refined interests, avant-garde strivings. The programme of the school encouraged this, similarly to what it did in areas that Bauhaus was not only to teach, but also to imprint. This was encouraged by the presence of such strong photographic (and not only) personalities as Lucia Moholy and László Moholy-Nagy.

The Nazis’ coming to power spelt the end of Bauhaus: buildings were ordered to be destroyed, foreign lecturers to be thrown out of the country and domestic ones to be assigned other duties. That was the intention. But the architects left for the USSR, and the photographers to the US, and Bauhaus as an idea diffused spontaneously, connecting with other, local ideas.

But the radiance of the school of vision proposed in Dessau could be felt locally earlier, since the 1920s. In this way, we may (though we don’t have to) connect the images of poverty shown in the text. Because Bauhaus photography is also a craft view, including the visions of Lucia Moholy, seeking new angles; or those of Irena Blühová, concentrating first on ethnographic images but with time seeking to present unposed portraits of poverty, ordinary and extreme; or László Moholy-Nagy’s photograms – non-representational, unreal. And this is just a random selection of names and attitudes. The political and social sensitivity of the Bauhaus students, mainly leftist, thus finds a reflection in these images of people eating soup, in the picture of the paper shredding Machine – images of people – and in this family portrait, full of hopelessness, a painfully precise image of people without a future.

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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