Friday, June 22, 2012

Erich Salomon: Discreet Photographer Of The Political Class

Great Artists

The work of a photojournalist who wants to be more than a mere craftsman, is a constant battle, a battle for the picture, and as in hunting, he gets his game only if he has an obsession for the chase. 
Erich Salomon, in Masters Of Photography 
by Beaumont and Nancy Newhall, 1958, p. 134

Erich Salomon [1886-1944]: "What’s a meeting that isn’t photographed by Salomon? People won’t believe it’s important at all! said French Prime Minister Aristide Briand in 1930.
Source: e-flux

Erich Salomon would walk into a room of powerful politicians, take their pictures in unguarded moments, and then publish the photos in a national news magazine. Today that would be unthinkable, if not impossible, with arranged photo-ops the norm. That is what makes Salomon's photos all the more compelling and attractive; they give us an insight into a world that few see. It was with good reason Salomon was called the "The King of  the Indiscreet." Salomon was undoubtedly a pioneer of German photojournalism.

It is important to note that Salomon was at first trained in engineering before graduating with a degree in law—both professions sharing a high degree of mental ability. And then there is the intellectual and scientific aspect that informed Salomon's thinking and work. In his writings, Salomon said that his was an attempt to take a scientific approach to photography, so as to reveal or capture the true sense of humans, particularly those in power. The psychology of the mind, as it applied to individuals and to crowds, was in vogue then—as it is now—giving such photographs a scientific patina of respectability. As one site put it:
Erich Salomon’s group and individual portraits can be viewed as studies of different milieus, forming an inventory of the psychological and behavioural tendencies of people, captured unawares. In this sense, his approach belongs to the German tradition of encyclopaedic investigation. In 1931, Salomon published Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments, by Engelhorn Verlag, Stuttgart, presenting himself as a hunter tracking down the true face of personalities, and detailing the exact circumstances in which the photographs were taken. Taken at just the right moment, his images avoided the frozen expressions of posed photography.
Now, a photograph is fun to look at; it can sometimes reveal something of the person or persons within its frame, including stories and conjecture if it is filled with emotion and expression. Unfortunately, photographs can be manipulated, and they do not always tell the "truth"; thus facts are necessary to accompany a photo. Even so, they can reveal something hidden, perhaps of an immaterial nature, when taken by a skilled artist. Such explains the appeal of Salomon's spontaneous unadorned photos, when compared to the staged photographs of world leaders today, the so-called photo-ops, stage managed under the tightest of security. It is no wonder that under such strictures, the photographs appear stiff, unnatural and unrealistic, as if these are not people but mannequins. They couldn't be otherwise, could they?

Some of his most well-known photos include the Second Hague Reparation Conference (January 1930) where the heads of the Great Powers met to discuss German reparations demanded by the Treaty of Versailles, Quai d’Orsay in the French Foreign Minsitry with French Foreign Minsiter Aristide Briand pointing (August 1931), Albert Einstein in animated conversation with British Prime Minsiter Ramsay MacDonald in Berlin (1931), and the United Supreme Court in session (1932), one of the only two persons known to have achieved that distinction.

The Early Years

Erich Salomon was born into a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany, on April 28, 1886; his family was well- assimilated and prosperous, the Comesana site puts it:
His father was a banker and a member of the stock exchange; his mother came from a line of prominent publishers. As a youth he had the time and money to explore a variety of possible careers. He first studied zoology, then switched to engineering before finally settling on law and taking his degree in 1913. With the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted into the Kaiser´s army and soon thereafter was captured during the first Battle of the Marne. He spent the next four years in prisoner-of-war camps, where he served as an interpreter and acquired the fluency in French that was later to prove invaluable in gaining entry to conferences.
The rampant inflation after the First World War resulted in many business failures and the loss of family fortunes. His family proved no exception, and Salomon scrambled for ways to earn a living. After two failed business ventures—a piano factory and a electric car & motorcycle rental service—in 1923 he joined a large publishing house, Ullstein, where he worked in its advertising department. He became a photojournalist in 1928, at the age of 42. The first step was to find the right camera for what he wanted to achieve. He settled on an Ermanox, one of the first miniature cameras equipped with a high-speed lens, which enabled him to photograph in dim light.

The next step was to take candid photos. His first photo was taken at a famous murder trial—photographs were not allowed in the courtroom, as is the case today—where he hid his camera in a bowler hat, cutting a hole for the lens. Again, Salomon was fighting against the easy tendency to just get the picture. Any Picture. His first photo was published in 1928 in the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, a pictorial weekly with a circulation that would hit a record 2 million by 1930.

By 1931, Salomon, self-taught, became one of Europe’s most famous photographers. Until 1933 he worked mainly as a freelance photographer for Ullstein, the Berliner illustrierte Zeitung, the Münchner illustrierte Presse, Fortune, Life and the Daily TelegraphMuch of his success had to do with both the camera and the method he used. The camera, which professional photographers shunned, was itself well-suited for the job [see photo]. "It was a 645-format plate camera with a focal plane shutter that could shoot up to 1/1000 second (also not new), but it had an incredibly fast f/1.8 lens," says Kevin Moloney in his blog post on influential photojournalists of the 20th century. Erich Salomon influenced another great photojournalist, Alfred Eidenstaedt.

In 1931 Salomon published a book of his work, Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments and in 1935 he held an exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London. After racial laws against the Jews took effect in Nazi Germany in 1933, Salomon was no longer able to publish in German magazines, so he moved with his family to The Hague in the Netherlands in 1934, where his wife was from. He had an offer to come to  America, invited by Life magazine. He considered it but kept putting it off until it was too late. 

The Last Years

In 1940 the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, and that changed things forever for Erich Salomon. From the toast of Berlin society, he became the "Jew Salomon." After the Nuremberg Laws were enforced in the Nazi-occupied nations, Salomon went into hiding with his wife and son, Dirk. (An older son was in England.) They were betrayed by a meter reader in 1944, who noted an increase in gas consumption in the place where they were hiding. They were at first sent to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia and then in May 1944 on to Auschwitz, Poland, a Nazi concentration camp, where Erich Salomon died on or about July 7, 1944, according to Red Cross records. He was 58.

The elder son, who had survived the war in England, took about one-third of his father's 10,000 negatives with him. Another third were hidden in a house of a friend; and the remainder hidden in the library of the Dutch Parliament. In 1971, the German Society of Photography established the Dr. Erich Salomon Prize, a lifetime achievement award for photojournalists, and the nation's most prestigious award for photography. What a fitting tribute.