Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover: Aenne Biermann’s 60 Photos
Keywords:Aenne Biermann; agency; atlas; hand; literacy; medium; photobook; photography; photographic literacy; Weimar Germany (1930).
“A child’s hands” was chosen as the cover image for a monograph by photographer Aenne Biermann (1898–1933), published in Weimar Germany (1930) as part of a small series of paperback publications edited by Franz Roh and Jan Tschichold. Volume 1 of the same series, also published in 1930, was dedicated to photography by László Moholy-Nagy, who in a different context had advocated for photographic literacy. Even though Biermann was published amongst the forerunners of the New Vision, as evidenced by her photobook 60 Photos, she had been forgotten for a long time. By calling attention to her photographic oeuvre, my essay poses questions about the mechanisms of writing photobook history (and which books are omitted from it). In the discourse surrounding the photobook, the child’s hand as depicted on the cover is viewed as a symbol of the activity that the photobook unleashes, both as a tangible object and as a thinking device. Biermann’s photo-constellations oscillate between training manual and atlas for seeing, between perception primer and picture book; they offer a surprisingly humorous complexity, taking full advantage of the photobook as a medium of artistic expression.
Acknowledgments: This paper is based in part on arguments first developed in my PhD dissertation Schools for Seeing: German Photobooks between 1924 and 1937 as Perception Primers and Sites of Knowledge (Princeton University, 2015), as well as my ABC der Photographie. Photobücher der Weimarer Republik als Schulen des Sehens [ABC of Photography. Photobooks of the Weimar Republic as Schools for Seeing] (Cologne: Walther König, 2018). Thanks to Vreni Hockenjos for the invitation to present at FotoWien in March 2022, where I took part in a panel entitled “Beyond the Margins: on Photobooks by Women”. Her research and thoughts on photobooks are invaluable. Thanks also to Michael Jennings, Sigrid Weigel, Devin Fore, Eduardo Cadava, and Barbara N. Nagel for supporting earlier thoughts on this topic in my dissertation, and to Catherine Abou-Nemeh for reading a draft version of this paper. I am grateful to Annette Kicken and the late Rudolf Kicken, as well as Petra Helck, Anna Kröger and Ina Schmidt-Runke of Gallery Kicken Berlin for introducing me to Aenne Biermann’s photographs already in 2006. The author acknowledges the support of the Cluster of Excellence “Matters of Activity. Image Space Material” funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany’s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2025 – 390648296.
Article received: April 15, 2022; Article accepted: June 21, 2022; Published online: September 15, 2022; Original scholarly paper
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