Rory MacLean meets Günter Karl Bose
Before the invention of photography, painters sought to make images that imitated the appearance of the world. With the introduction of the camera, painting as a realistic form of expression fell from favour. Photography became the best means of documenting external reality, of capturing the truth. Then along came digital technology and Photoshop. At the click of a mouse images could manipulated, their meanings changed, and their lies (or half-truths) reproduced ad infinitum. Purity was lost. Truth died in a million pretty pixels.
As a result traditional photographs – from Daguerreotypes to Kodachrome transparencies – have come to be seen as honest and unique. Their value has increased both because they cannot be altered and because – in the safe and secure modern West – they open a window onto another time, another world. They enable us to imagine ourselves into that other place, and to take ourselves out of our (comparatively) safe and predictable lives.
Last year Günter Karl Bose, professor at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig, came to international attention with the publication of Photomaton (2012), his collection of 500 portraits of men, women and children snapped in Germany’s first photo-booths between 1928 and 1945. Photomaton: the new artistic portrait was the slogan used to advertise the machines in which for one Reichsmark, the currency of the time, a self-portrait could be taken, anonymously.
Over years Bose collected these - and other - ‘forgotten’ photographs at flea markets and on ebay, building a portrait of Germany in the manner of August Sander and Walter Benjamin, documenting the changing times in the faces and clothes of individuals: shy first looks, new hairstyles, carnival costumes, then uniforms and headscarves worn with the coming of war. The sitters’ names are unknown, as are their fates. Are the individuals alive? Were they killed? How - asks the modern viewer - would I have looked, felt and behaved at that time? In many ways Photomaton carries on from Sander’s Face of our Time (1929), both being works created ‘from direct observation.’
In Germany Bose's reputation for thoughtful, beautiful work predates ‘Photomaton’. At Albrecht-Ludwig-Universität in Freiburg he studied politics, literature and art history, aspiring to be a journalist. But in 1980 he and a friend founded a remarkable publishing house, Verlag Brinkmann und Bose.
‘Our dream was not only to write and publish books but to print and bind them as well,’ he told me. ‘We wanted to be craftsmen as well as publishers so we bought old machines and set up in a factory close to the Wall in Berlin where rent was cheap. There we published works of Jacques Derrida, Friedrich Kittler, Walter Benjamin, Sabina Spielrein, Freeman Dyson and Claude Shannon. We produced the first German edition of Alan Turing’s On Computable Numbers.’
He went on, ‘Turing was one of the greatest mathematical geniuses of the century. He provided the mathematical foundations of the computer. His work during World War II was of great importance. He and a group of engineers succeeded decoding the German ciphers. For that they used one of the first computers called Colossus. Our book on him was the first to be published in Germany with an accompanying floppy disk. Today few modern devices exist that can read them. For me, media has its own special story.’
Over the years Bose and Brinkmann taught themselves typography and their unique, almost bespoke limited editions attracted the attention of trade publishers. Soon the friends were designing and producing others’ books, as well as undertaking commissions for graphic illustrations and specialist posters. In 1993 Bose was invited to be professor for typography at the Leipzig Academy. After two decades, he left Brinkmann und Bose and - while teaching - created graphics for many of Germany’s major cultural institutions.
‘I’ve worked for the Leipzig Opera, the Deutsche Oper Berlin, the Berliner Festspiele, the Literaturhaus Berlin, many Berlin museums, and, very important for me, the concert series “musica viva” for Bayerischer Rundfunk radio.’
I asked him when he’d first become interested in photography.
‘Like others, I was given a “Box-Kamera” when I was a little boy. But I didn’t take many pictures with it, despite winning a prize for one of them. I was more interested in history. So instead I began collecting photographs to illustrate my books. For example, I wrote a story about circuses with a friend, and collected circus pictures to go with it.’
Bose’s latest book Big Zep (2013) is a collection of 300 zeppelin photographs taken between 1924 and 1939 and culled from hundreds of family photo albums. For me, Big Zep is particularly moving because - as in ‘Photomaton’ - the photographs were taken by anonymous amateurs as the airships passed over Berlin or docked at the Friedrichshafen airfield. Once again, the photographs reveal to us a true and lost time and place, without a single altered pixel.
‘All the theorists – especially Roland Barthes - emphasize that photography’s value is in capturing the passing moment,’ Bose told me. ‘In Camera Lucida Barthes writes about his mother and about a picture that shows her as a young woman. And Susan Sontag chose a Daguerreotype for the cover of the first edition of her book On Photography. In it a couple hold another Daguerreotype up to the camera. On it are the couple’s possibly deceased family members. Photographs capture lives.’
Günter Karl Bose paused and added, ‘So much of what we know about daily life in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries comes from photographs. The photo albums of those times are something like family sagas. Like literature, photography is our “other” memory.’