Contradictory Beauty, Carsten Becker‘s Photo Series Agfacolor, by Philipp Hindahl
If we imagine photography as communication, most photos speak to us in a disguised voice. Some disguise theirs in such obvious ways that the thought of actually falling for the illusion seems absurd. Others are less obvious about it, which is why propaganda images from World War II have long been used as documents after the war. Some of these images can still be found in coffee-table books and TV documentaries today.
Philipp Hindahl, 2019
If we imagine photography as communication, most photos speak to us in a disguised voice. Some disguise theirs in such obvious ways that the thought of falling for the illusion seems absurd. Others are less obvious about it, which is why propaganda images from World War II have long been used as documents since the end of the war. Some of these images can still be found in coffee-table books and TV documentaries today.
For his series Agfacolor, Carsten Becker focuses on moments that make it impossible for photographs to disguise their voice. The artist presents image sections from color photos he discovered in archives, taken by soldiers of the German propaganda troops. He closes in on details and the enhancement lends an aesthetic quality to the ageing marks, the tinting and scratches of the film material – a quality beyond the original photographer’s control.
One particular myth about photography is especially persistent – that photos create an imprint of the world, that they are close to reality. For decades, art historians have been working to refute this myth: against authenticity, for constructedness. Between the World Wars, newspapers, magazines and cinema merged to form a new media landscape. Questions about the epistemological character of photography were no longer mere aesthetic speculation, and they went beyond the sphere of art history and academia.
In 1936, Walter Benjamin published his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. The text closes with an epilogue: Fascism, writes Benjamin, tends to stage war as an aesthetic spectacle, and the new ideology “expects war to supply the artistic gratification of a sense perception that has been changed by technology”.¹ Armament incorporated the field of the aesthetic.
While preparing for war, the national socialists also determined guidelines for war propaganda.² They formed so-called propaganda troops, units intended to keep reporting in line with the policy of the regime. Their material was made into compilations for the newsreels, while photographs and front reports found their way into the daily newspapers.³ Rifles and ammunition, cameras and film cartridges – the militarization of society went hand in hand with the militarization of mass-produced images.⁴
In the Federal Republic of Germany, not many color photos from that time have remained in the collective memory – short of a few exceptions, such as the pictures of Hitler at Obersalzberg taken by Walter Frentz, who had begun his career as a cameraman working for director Leni Riefenstahl. Technicolor film processes, however, had been around for some time at that point. Cinematic experiments with the new technology had already been conducted prior to World War I, but German cinemas did not show color films until the late 1930s, when they were introduced as both an escapist pleasure for the Germans and as a demonstration of German achievement for foreign countries.⁵
But what about direct propaganda? At the onset of the war, quick reporting could only be ensured by the use of black-and-white material. Later, in 1941, Walter Frentz ordered a few hundred meters of color film from Agfa and the first film recordings in color were taken in North Africa and in Leningrad.⁶
The “war reporters” (“Kriegsberichter”) had already been taking color photos before that time. However, 35 mm color photography was, as yet, a relatively new development on the mass market. In the mid-1930s, the USA brought out Kodakchrome, and Agfa produced color films for German consumers.
Some of the pictures from which Becker takes his sections are strangely indeterminate, they seem familiar, like old holiday photos. They show idyllic landscapes, a Landser soldier urinates by the side of the road, the film reporter Horst Grund is seated at his desk in the middle of a meadow. These pictures are snapshots by war reporters using the new Agfacolor film, including all the irregularities not permitted in official propaganda.
Proceeding from such pictures, Becker works out the moment for which Roland Barthes has coined the term punctum⁷. Barthes’ punctum stands in opposition to the studium, the concentrated reading of photography. The punctum, on the other hand, immediately captures the viewer. It is much less domesticated and does not submit to the rules of disciplined image analysis. It allows an unconscious dimension to manifest itself by apparently pointing beyond the photograph itself.⁸
In Becker’s work, this happens through color errors caused by the ageing of the material, through scratches on the diapositives, through archive dust or deformations of the film that have occurred by accident and obstruct readability. Thus, the color of a sunset immediately evokes a familiar, but hard-to-explain melancholy, a farm somewhere in Crimea takes on the surprising quality of a painting. Their own specter still haunts some of the photos and becomes visible in their new framing. The images leave an uncanny aftertaste. The viewer knows that they date back to the war, they are marginalia of committed atrocities. And he cannot forget what lies beyond the frame: murder, forced labor, the front.
The interest of Becker’s work is not merely aesthetic, and moreover, it includes a twofold blur. On the one hand, the underlying snapshots usually deviate from the strict staging of the official propaganda images. On the other hand, his composition is itself subjective when he chooses a specific section.
Becker grew up with his grandparents’ war stories, which were still strongly shaped by propaganda. In his work, he renders visible the spots in which the truth of photography comes through. This is not the kind of narration offered up by the official, heroic version, nor are these images the mass-produced compositions that lend Nazi propaganda its uniformity. The contradictory beauty, the contingency, the ageing processes of the material – all this makes up the singularity of Becker’s pictures.
Philipp Hindahl is an art historian and author, he is living in Berlin.
Translation: Philipp Multhaupt
¹ Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“, in: id., Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, New York 2007 (1968), pp. 227-251, here p. 242.
² Cf. Daniel Uziel, "Propaganda, Kriegsberichterstattung und die Wehrmacht", in: Judith Prokaski, Rainer Rother (eds.), Die Kamera als Waffe. Propagandabilder des Zweiten Weltkriegs, Munich 2010, pp. 13-38, here p. 15ff.
³ Quoted after: Uziel, S. 26.
⁴ Cf. ibid., p. 22; also cf. Miriam Y. Arani, "Wie Feindbilder gemacht wurden. Zur visuellen Konstruktion von 'Feinden' am Beispiel der Fotografien der Propagandakompanien aus Bromberg 1939 und Warschau 1941", in Judith Prokaski, Rainer Rother (eds.), Die Kamera als Waffe. Propagandabilder des Zweiten Weltkriegs, Munich 2010, pp. 150-163.
⁵ Cf. Dirk Alt, "Farbe als Waffe. Der Farbfilm als Mittel der deutschen Kriegsberichterstattung 1941-1945", in: Judith Prokaski, Rainer Rother (eds.), Die Kamera als Waffe. Propagandabilder des Zweiten Weltkriegs, München 2010, pp. 96-105, here p. 96.
⁶ Cf. ibid., pp. 97ff.
⁷ On this, cf. Roland Barthes, "Camera Lucida. Reflections on Photography", trans. Richard Howard, New York 2010 (1980), pp. 94ff.