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Photography changed stories of Weimar Germany, professor says

Patrizia McBride

Photographic images, with their immediacy and ability to convey highly complex narratives, had a powerful impact on storytelling in Weimar Germany, said Patrizia McBride, associate professor and chair of German studies, at the History of Art's Visual Culture Colloquium March 5.

In her lecture, "Mimesis and Storytelling in the Art of Constructivism," in Goldwin Smith Hall's Ruth Woolsey Findley Gallery of Art, McBride focused on the photobook that developed in 1920s Germany. In giving images a dominant role, the new genre responded to the question raised by photojournalistic images: how to harness the capability of photography for exact reproduction "without conflating exactitude with truth."

Photobooks, McBride said, made photography's ability to shape narration through imagery a part of the story itself. "The modernist photobook is a hybrid genre that placed photography's realism in the service of narratives crafted through montage," she explained. "Montage's peculiar mimicry was often a means for rethinking narrative beyond the conceptual and experiential constraints imposed by the novel and other literary genres bound to the print media."

As an example, McBride examined the photobook assembled between 1933 and 1934 by Hannah Höch, one of Weimar Germany's most highly respected montage artists. The images survey many popular themes that dominated the visual culture of Germany then: the cult of fitness and the body, film stars, the New Woman and its attendant ideal of femininity, the marvels of the natural world and contemporary technology, and exotic landscapes and peoples.

Höch's work, said McBride, "has an eye-popping quality… laying bare the conventions of contemporary visual media and debunking gender- and class-based stereotypes."

Because objects in montage have been "yanked" out of their familiar environments, she said, they undercut conventional views and promote a different way of seeing. But a montage can also highlight similarities in visual patterns as a way of making the unfamiliar familiar. She noted that visual analogy is often used "as the glue that holds together a montage of seemingly unrelated images; it's a way of establishing visual associations in order to reinforce the image's thematic and conceptual coherence."

Fundamentally, McBride said, the photobook invites the viewer to look guided by the question "what else am I able to see if I reshuffle the conventional orders in which images appear?"

Linda B. Glaser is staff writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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