“If you come across a list of the most important photographers of the first half of the 20th century, Paul Wolff (Mulhouse, France, 1887-Frankfurt, 1955) will not be on it. However, if there were to be a list of the most influential, most published, and most commercially successful photographers of that period, Leica pioneer Wolff should rank at the top. ” In this way Manfred Heiting introduces the figure of this forgotten photographer, who documented the lifestyle in Germany from the beginning of the Weimar Republic to the fall of the Third Reich through the small and handy camera, destined to revolutionize the development of the photographic medium. “It is not a question of what you see, but how you see it”, would be his creed.
Heiting, a designer, a renowned expert in photography books and a voracious collector of books and photographs, was slow to learn about the work of the versatile German, who would come to cover all genres of the medium, except the nude, from which he shunned. The discovery took place thanks to a confusion. Interested in purchasing a copy of the book German work (Ullstein, 1930), EO Hoppé’s masterpiece dedicated to industrial photography, the collector received by mistake Job!, de Wolff (1937). The aesthetics of the images, the author’s skill in the use of light, and the exceptional print quality immediately transformed Heiting’s initial disappointment. “I realized that I had received a jewel,” he recalls. Carried out as a commission for propagandist purposes to publicize the initial successes of Hitler’s Four-Year Plan – aimed at recovering the German economy – the publication composes a superb visual portrait, which dignified the work of the workers through pronounced contrasts, shots shorts and geometries that perfectly dialogue with the industrial field, framed within the postulates of the new objectivity. A style from which the author would later distance himself, referring to it as “cold objectivity.”
Albeit! It is included among the more than a thousand publications made in the studio that Wolff established in Frankfurt with his partner, the photographer Alfred Tritschler (1905-1970). Together they worked on advertising assignments, others for tourism purposes, company yearbooks, commercial catalogs, commemorative publications, as well as preparing reports for magazines, among many others. “Wolff produced the largest number of publications by an active photographer during the 20th century”, highlights Heiting, whose meticulous research task, to which is added that carried out by Kristina Lemke, is behind Dr. Paul Wolff & Alfred Tritschler. The Printed Images 1906-2019 (Steidl). This book offers a rich and detailed documentation on the vast work produced by this artistic and business tandem. A work that was favored by a boom in the consumption of information, through magazines, the radio, and the cinema, as well as the great demand for commercial and political propaganda of the time “Photography came to exert a crucial influence in the life of the Germans. What contributed to change the image of the photographic medium, ”says Heiting.
The decline of the adventure of this pair of enterprising artists began in 1944, after the bombing that destroyed the home of Wolff during the war. A good part of the negatives could be rescued, but not the large-format plates that marked the beginning of his career. At the age of 19, and being a student at the medical school, he used his camera to illustrate an article on cylindrical shapes in nature, which he would publish in the scientific journal Cosmos. In time he would go on to become a Leica master after receiving a prototype of the camera in 1926 as a gift from the firm and in order to experiment and disseminate the invention. Seven years later, the company organized an exhibition, My Experience with the Leica Camera, made up of more than one hundred enlargements of the work of the German photographer, who toured Europe, America and Japan. “During that time no other photographer managed to come this close to world recognition,” says Heiting.
However, during his life no museum or collector acquired his work, a fact that would contribute to his oblivion. His first museum exhibition took place six years after his death and a catalog was dispensed with. It was not until 2003 that the Suerdmont-Ludwig Museum in Aachen published the first. “I am firmly convinced that the history of 20th century photography can only be understood, evaluated, interpreted, and taught by examining the photographer’s entire work: museum and collector-owned copies and published photographs. Only then can you have an informed judgment about the place that a photographer occupies in history, ”Heiting says.
Wolff realized that the primary value of photography lay first and foremost in its reproducibility, and it was on this that he focused. However, 20th century photography has been judged from the perspective of its presence in museums and in collections and that of the art market, overlooking what Heiting identifies as “the greatest impulse of photographers themselves: the desire to see his work reproduced in magazines and books ”.
The publisher who helped define 20th century photography
“If a photographer has something important to say, he [o ella] he will publish it in a book ”, Josef Koudelka once said, something instinctively known by the one who would become its editor, the legendary Robert Delpire (1926-2017), a visionary who helped define 20th century photography by venturing to publish books that today appear as milestones and that he knew how to stay for six decades within the complicated publishing market of photography books. An exhibition is dedicated to him, until September 26, the new edition of the Arles Meetings, Neuf from A to Z. Delpire before Delpire, on the occasion of the reissue of the nine issues of the innovative magazine NEUF, his first editorial adventure.
“The job of an editor is to show the work of others. It goes beyond teamwork; it requires a deep mutual understanding. I have never published someone who has not been of interest to me ”, the editor and also curator would say. Something that he already made very clear when in 1950, at the age of 24 and being a medical student fond of sports as well as painting and photography, he agreed to take charge of an illustrated magazine published by the university faculty, which he regularly published a modest newsletter every six months. With “the spirit of the audacious and dynamic young people of the post-war period, he embarks on an adventure as unforeseen as it is incongruous, a business that starts contrary to what was the photographic edition of the time, to, in just six months, leave its mark” , writes Michel Frizot, in a text that is included in the limited edition box where the facsimiles are presented.
The adventure lasted three years during which Jean-Paul Sartre, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton and Henry Miller signed texts. In his first issue, the painter Raoul Dufy colored the pages with an illustration. Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau or Werner Bischof contributed their black and white images. The fifth number was dedicated to Brassaï and the eighth presented the images made in Peru by an unknown Robert Frank accompanying a text by Georges Arnaud.
“I understood that my path in life was in the publishing world and not in surgery. Anyone can be wrong ”, the editor would say, to whom this first initiative would serve to establish what has been one of the most influential publishing firms of its time: Éditions Delpire, whose cardinal points are fixed with From one China to the other (1954), by Henri Cartier-Bresson; The Americans (1958), by Robert Frank, and Gypsies: the end of the journey (1975) by Josef Koudelka.
Photography would not be the same today without the figure of this editor, who never set limits to his creative ambition. He was the film producer of Who are you, Polly Maggoo?, satirical film about the world of fashion and its excesses, directed by William Klein, designed advertising campaigns, curated exhibitions, and innovated the editorial format with the introduction of the photography paperback. With Delpire photography was always more affordable.
600 pages. 125 euros.
Delpire Publishing, 2021.
826 pages. 149 euros.
NEW from A to Z. Delpire before Delpire. Espace Van Gogh. Arles Encounters. Until september 26.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.