Of Images and Reality

Austrian photography rediscovered as an art form, from 1861 to 1945 at the Albertina

Portrait of actress Maria Schanda (1933) by Trude Fleischmann | Photo: Courtesy of PHG

Announcing a deep commitment to fostering young talent, President Werner Sobotka of the 148-year-old Photographic Society (PHG) of Vienna hopes to revive the lost charm of discovery with a camera, and perhaps at the same time, help restore to the photographer community its role at the centre of a thriving, creative profession.  It is an ambitious mission, meant to “mainly assist the young and support the latest developments within the range of professional photography,” but also to pay tribute to one of the oldest and most respected associations of photographers since its founding in 1861.

In this spirit, the PHG has assembled a challenging show called “Explosion der Bilderwelt”, running from through Oct. 2 at the Albertina.  Its purpose: to tell the story of the forgotten art of Austrian photography.

The exhibition is successful in relating the story of progress inspired by the Photographic Society between 1861 and 1945. It ranges between various areas of expertise, raw and unaltered, from landscapes to portraits and even scientific research documentations. It is less successful, however, in convincing a technologized public that this is something worth knowing, and that without the history of narrative through the camera lens, none of today’s photographic achievements would have been possible.

By 1864, just 25 years after the camera’s introduction, Vienna had already hosted an exhibition of photography, the first of its kind in the German-speaking world. Made possible with the support of local brewer-turned-artist Anton Dreher Jr. – most famous as the son and namesake of the inventor of Lager beer, the event was a success all around. Their private Palais on the Operngasse, densely packed with portfolios, bottles and chemicals of all sorts, served as homebase for local enthusiasts, who came to share the thrill of life captured in photographs, thereby helping to establish a new profession.

Amateurs and experts, pharmacists, doctors, merchants, factory owners and painters all came together to present their newly found revelation: Visual art extended beyond the interpretative bias of a painter or a sculptor, and displayed, they believed, as an excerpt of reality. The accurateness and objectivity of photography wasn’t yet in question, nor had it developed the commercial character that came to dominate the field in later years. From biological studies to industrial documentation, an observer’s heaven had suddenly opened before them.

Philipp Remélé Döbbelin’s photograph Installations Shot der Fototausstellung Berlin, 1865 flutters with that very sense of anticipation. It is a photograph of the Berliner exhibition hall from 1865 – an image of a three-levelled surface filled with thousands of other pictures, of various shapes and sizes and areas of interest. The sense is of hunger: Concentrated in a confined space, there is no room big enough for all the information contained in these tiny fragments of still life. Its graphic is strong and layered, its composition explosive. This glimpse helps explain why photography was, and to this day still is, an object of myth. And perhaps it can also explain our obsession with the passing of time, in thrall to the ability of a photograph to hold it fast.

The soft portrait of Maria Schanda (1933), skillfully captured by Austrian-American photographer Trude Fleischmann, (featured in a major retrospective “Trude Fleischmann – Der selbstbewusste Blick” at the Wien Museum earlier this year) is a wonderful depiction of the age’s nostalgia. Like many of her contemporaries of the inter-war era, the subject seems fractioned, avoiding eye contact, hiding furrows of worry. It appears as though she is suffering from a rare affliction, but if one keeps in mind the spirit of the time, one could easily call that affliction “modernism,” contextually manifested in photography.

Far from nurturing a medium of “mass communication” – printing prices at the time were very high – the Photographic Society began a regular correspondence with photographers abroad and began investing in research toward technical improvements.

As the technology evolved, so did the art of visual story-telling. Pioneers of the new medium, like Joseph Berres, Andreas Ritter von Ettingshausen or Franz Kratochwilla, became references for those who followed. Retrospective replaced introspection as artists abandoned experimentation in an effort to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors.

With the help of a technique called collotype printing, a photomechanical process used for the reproduction of early photographic images, standardization slowly took hold. In the following decades there were numerous revised editions of the first compendium of photography called “Repertorium der Photographie”, initiated by then president of the PHG, Anton Martin. In other words, what once stood for exclusive, non-repetitive photography was soon replaced by visual mass communication.

It’s somewhat ironic that what was once the fertile ground of technological innovation has now become an occasional recreation for pixilated eyes. But it is precisely for this reason that our digital habits should occasionally be interrupted. Even though photography is now a mass medium measured in megabytes, we need to be reminded that this was not always so.

Less than a century ago, each photograph came with a story.

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