Scotland’s premiere gallery dedicated to contemporary photography, Stills, is currently exhibiting LEAP IN TIME, a sprawling exhibition of 97 black and white images taken decades apart by German photojournalists. The works are currently on loan from Germany’s Institute for Cultural Relations in cooperation with Glasgow’s Goethe Institut.
Erich Salomon (1886-1944), the so-called ‘king of the indiscreet’, used his status as a celebrity photographer – and a hidden camera tucked beneath his hat – to snap candid images of Weimar-era politicians and socialites. His renown also gained him entrée to the homes and studios of cultural luminaries. Following a brief asylum in the Netherlands, Salomon, along with his family, was killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The pictures he captured in his lifetime epitomise his belief that “if a photo reporter wants to be more than just a technician, then his work will be a permanent struggle.”
Likewise, Barbara Klemm (b. 1939) does not stage her photos. Klemm’s method is to use lightweight equipment so she can surreptitiously place herself on the side lines. She has captured subjects ranging from Angela Merkel to the Berlin Wall. As she puts it, her ideology is to “record the unspectacular, something that takes place in public everywhere.”
“I think this choice of pairing is an inspired one,” said cultural historian and University of Edinburgh research associate Dr Tom Allbeson during a talk at the exhibition preview. “Klemm possesses the same will [as Salomon] to photograph moments in between…when people are going about their life, but not posing for the camera.”
The thematic parallels in the photographers’ works, which go beyond their shared nationality and proclivity for capturing ‘behind closed doors’ ephemerality, are underscored by LEAP IN TIME’s organisation. One room of Stills’ first floor is dedicated to Salomon’s photographs, and the other to Klemm’s. Within each room, the photographs are subdivided into clusters of nine or so images with a central focus; portraits, politics, and exile, with each being signposted by a plaque contextualising that theme.
From Salomon, for instance, you’ll find a portrait of screen siren Marlene Dietrich calling her daughter in Berlin from the comfort of a Hollywood bed, positioned alongside Vogue photographer Cecil Beaton, nearly engulfed in shadows as he shoots a model in London. Klemm offers counterparts: Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann in Frankfurt, a shawl and a cigarette depicting bohemian grace, and French intellectual Simone de Beauvoir, elegantly suspended as she shuts a mirrored closet in Paris.
In the realm of politics, Salomon and Klemm capture tenderness and tension. Standouts include Salomon’s stoic picture of the Reichstag’s Communist benches and Klemm’s shot of Lenoid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker embracing in celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of East Berlin.
As for exile, Salomon’s images of religious services and meals at Ellis Island present a tenuous taste of freedom and leave a trace of bittersweetness, given his own fate. Klemm’s photographs of immigrant families and workers in Germany in the mid-20th century likewise convey the potential for a better future, with hope wrapped up in workers’ dormitories and train stations. Since you are met with Klemm’s work upon entering the gallery, despite Salomon having first billing in the show’s title, the “leap” in question is a leap backward. Though Salomon can be considered Klemm’s photojournalistic forebear, the visitor takes in Germany’s history in reverse, from the fall of the Wall to an undivided Germany with darkness on the horizon.
Behind LEAP IN TIME is the age-old quandary of whether anything can be considered art by virtue of being placed in a gallery. While Salomon’s and Klemm’s images are executed with artistic integrity, it’s hard to dismiss the idea that the photographs were not shot with the goal of being displayed so formally. That none of the photographs are in colour emphasises their journalistic origins.
On the whole, to have cultural and political figures neatly side by side in an exhibition puts the subjects on unsettlingly equal footing. Still, though a singer or a film star may not dictate the fate of a nation as a politician does, celebrities and lawmakers alike are stitches in a country’s historical fabric, whether we see them in earnest, as in this show, or putting on airs for high-profile interviews.