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An independent spirit

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Germaine Krull: Photographer of Modernityby Kim Sichel.MIT Press, 2000. 363pp. £40.50

The opening paragraph of this massive study of Germaine Krull, born in 1897 in what was then East Prussia, suggests the scope of this extraordinary (but neglected) photographer's journey through the major part of the twentieth century. 'Art student in Munich in the midst of World War 1. Activist in the Bavarian Revolution. Dissident in Moscow at the Third World Congress of the Communist International. Consumer and Constructor of Weimar culture in Berlin. Introducer of the New Vision to France. Pre-eminent press photographer in interwar Paris. Entrepreneur and hotelier in Bangkok. . . .'

Krull's free-thinking engineer father undertook to educate her himself as he moved from job to job. His distrust of orthodox education surely influenced her subsequent radicalism and independence of spirit. One of her first portraits was of Kurt Eisner, the ill-fated leader of the short-lived Bavarian republic; just a year later, she photographed him on his death bed. Set up in a studio by an older lover, her friends included Max Horkheimer and Friedrich Pollock, later to become founders of the Frankfurt School for Social Research. There's a fine portrait of Walter Benjamin, another friend.

An affair with Joris Ivens, the Dutch filmmaker, introduced her to the world of Dutch functionalism and designers such as Piet Zwart and Paul Schuitema. This resulted in her first published portfolio, Metal - its industrial imagery more matter-of-fact than her early nudes (some of which make her studio bed more intriguing than Tracey Emin's).

The book's subtitle, 'photographer of modernity', implies its subject matter: the Bolshevik concept of sexual liberation; the Machine Age and industry; Parisian arcades;

the contradictions of glamour and poverty.

Over the page from the Eiffel Tower there are gypsies and a refuge constructed from scrap metal. There's a lost period between 1931 and 1943 (images from Brazzaville with the Free French) before the final selection from a Buddhist monastery in northern India. It was here that Krull suffered a severe stroke in 1983. Disillusioned at apparently being left to die by the monks, she managed to return to Germany, where she died in 1985.

'Passion and politics', one of the chapter titles, sums up Krull's story; but Kim Sichel tells it in a passionless academic style, suffused with political correctness, that almost makes this extraordinary life seem boring, and allows the personality to elude us.

Another problem with the book is weight.

While it is good to have the photographs large and on heavy glazed paper, the mass of biographical text makes this an effort to lift. A portfolio or a biography - they seem to demand separate formats. But that's a problem endemic to this type of research publishing, apparently destined for a table in the reference library rather than an armchair.

David Wild is an architect in London

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