1897–1985 / German-Dutch photographer
Dance of metals
In 1928 a small portfolio of photographs entitled “Métal” was published in France consisting of 64 photographs featuring iron constructions, cranes, bridges, machines, and the Eiffel Tower using unusual perspectives and cropping techniques. When viewed in sequence, the individual photographs combine to form a kind of cinematic “dance of naked metals,” transforming the gigantic metal constructions into monuments to a modern era. At a time when the adoration of technology had taken on almost religious proportions, the French press celebrated the photobook as the photographic embodiment of the “esprit moderne”. It was this publication that most likely prompted Walter Benjamin to mention Germaine Krull in his essay “A Short History of Photography” (1931) in the same breath as prominent photographers August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt – and thus immortalize her in art history, at least as a footnote.
Germaine Krull is a woman who lived many lives. Calling herself “chien-fou” (French for “crazy dog”), she made for the perfect artist. She completely reinvented her life an impressive seven times, living in Europe, Africa, and Asia. She fought for a spell as a socialist and anarchist and changed political camps at will. She despised narrow-minded conventions, especially the binary gender order. Germaine Krull made her own rules.
In the roaring twenties, after studying photography in Munich and a short “detour” as a counter-revolutionary in a Russian prison, she opened her own studio in Berlin. She practised street photography, developed her nude photography, and honed her no-nonsense style which would later, after a stint in Amsterdam and her marriage to documentarian Joris Ivens, help her gain recognition in Paris. There she earned her livelihood with fashion photography work arranged by her friend Sonia Delaunay. But not unlike Lee Miller, the fashion genre made Krull miserable. So she took her work to the streets, as did her colleagues Marianne Breslauer, Gisèle Freund, Ilse Bing and Ellen Auerbach. In this new context, machines proved to be her motif of choice. She sought out unusual details, made use of backlight and celebrated the “darling of Nouvelle Vision”: the diagonal shot. Her photographic impressions of technology were met with unexpected excitement in Paris. Together with the likes of Man Ray and André Kertész, Germaine Krull was seen as being at the pinnacle of modern photography, celebrated as a machine photographer and, according to Eugéne Merle, an “Iron Valkyrie”. The multi-talented Jean Cocteau was very taken with her photographic talent and wrote in 1930 that she was like a “mirror that transformed the image of the world.” Germaine Krull rose to become a sought-after commercial and portrait photographer and developed her own unique visual language. With her slanted perspective and use of cropping, she made her mark on Nouvelle Vision photography, used most notably by Bauhaus photographers to push the boundaries of stylistic structures. Peugeot, Citroën and a Paris electric plant commissioned her with works. Important international exhibitions followed, like the Photographie der Gegenwart (Contemporary Photography) in Essen or the Werkverbund travelling exhibition Film und Foto, both in 1929.
During her Paris years, she often worked for VU magazine, published photobooks, experimented with multiple exposures and collage-like work. She captured the Paris underworld, landscapes, took portraits of André Malraux, Jean Cocteau, and Sergei Eisenstein. Her work was a combination of “offensive” nudes, fashion, advertising and portrait photography, social photography, and avant-garde portraits of technology. All her work was characterized by her new way of seeing, a unique visual language that she later rediscovered while documenting the Battle of Alsace on behalf of the French armed forces under General de Gaulle. In 1946 she travelled to Indochina as one of the first war correspondents. She led a turbulent life on several continents, and not just as a photographer: Krull ran a hotel in Bangkok for nearly twenty years and lived in a temple in northern India as a follower of the Dalai Lama. Nearly forgotten, she died in Hessen in 1985.
Walter Benjamin’s reference to the avant-garde photographer caught the attention of the art collector couple Anna and Jürgen Wilde. With the diligence of detectives, they tracked down Germaine Krull’s work in the 1970s, thus saving it from oblivion. It was their personal dedication that paved the way for the photographer to be rediscovered. Today, the extensive collection of the Ann and Jürgen Wilde Foundation is housed in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. Germaine Krull’s artistic estate is curated by the Folkwang Museum in Essen.