Photo Captions

A School for Seeing

The double-page spread at hand was taken from Aenne Biermann’s photobook 60 Fotos / 60 Photographs published in Weimar Germany in 1930.

It shows two eyes in close-up: one open and one closed. When looking at this double page, the eyes of the beholder move back and forth between the right and left photograph. Examining the open and closed eye, the beholders activate them with their gaze. These two photographs, as part of an image sequence of sixty photographs, similarly activate the viewer’s own eyes by echoing the gesture of seeing, but also by evoking the shutter of the camera which produces the picture that is depicted in the photographs. Open and closed eye mimic human perception, but this page in Biermann’s photobook also separates the act of seeing into two units: it thus photographically introduces a pause. It fixates the otherwise unconscious act of blinking, turning it into a gaze that never tires and a closed eye that will never open again. And it visualizes the paradox of photography: the moment a photograph is taken the shutter closes and there is momentary blindness. Like the “Eye of History”, it is at the same time blind and capable of seeing everything.

The immobility of the photograph thus produced, however, has a mobilizing effect on the beholder, as the beholder’s gaze goes back and forth between the two eyes, opening and closing both photographically fixed, static eyes. The space surrounding the two photos accentuates the horizontal connectedness in their placement on the spread, as they form one image-pair. It takes a while until we see that this is not just a face, broken up into two pages. Rather, we see the open left eye on the right, the closed right eye on the left, thus constructing a face in reverse – the noses would consequently be on either side of the book, not in the middle. What is more, once we take a closer look, we cannot be sure that both eyes belong to the same person. 

The eye is here presented as something we are “looking at”, while we are also “being-looked at”; Biermann’s close-up thus also makes visible that photography is a vehicle to produce images. Moreover, it helps us reflect on the construction of images. The two photographs of the human eye pull the viewer consciously into the act of perception. Because they pose a question: What is it that photography shows us? Or, put more simply: What and how do we see? Through the juxtaposition the photographs allow us to practice comparative vision and slow down the perception of photographic images, while they simultaneously mobilize our critical engagement with them. In other words: we might learn to read photographs.

Aenne Biermann (1898-1933) was a self-taught photographer who published only one photobook. Her 60 Fotos was part of what was supposed to be a long series of small paperback photobooks, edited by art historian and critic Franz Roh and designed by Jan Tschichold, featuring 60 photographs by one photographer. These books were loosely modeled on an iconic publication by August Sander from 1929, called Antlitz der Zeit (or “Face of our Time”) which also contained 60 photographs. Biermann’s book and this page in particular reference Sander’s highly successful work, and the photographic investment with physiognomy at the time, but the two photographs chosen make for a poetic and idiosyncratic response, placing emphasis on the act of perception.

The modernist photobook—a book made mostly of photographs in the 1920s and 1930s, such as Biermann’s —was therefore a medium that mobilized the beholder in the act of perception. The elements of the photobook produce this mobilization of the beholder through an instant yet complex cognitive process of reading and seeing, and holding the book. By leafing through the book and handling it, the beholder takes on an active role in helping the photographic sequence come into being. Hands, eyes, and mind are thus connected in the act of perception of the photobook.

It was Pepper Stetler who in 2008 first proposed the term “multi-sensory visual object” for a photobook-proto-type, building on an extended notion of perception by Jonathan Crary. In my reading, the photobook produces photographic literacy through this particular perception that allows for an activation of the beholder. It interrupts the smooth consumption of photographic images, because it disrupts a passive flow of photographs as experienced in other places (the cinema, or the illustrated press, for example). Instead it creates a space between photographic images, activates this space and calls for the beholder’s active re-assembly of the images by doing so–the turning of the page to create the sequence in the book. The space between the photographs is a crucial element in the “activation of the beholder,” which in turn constitutes the pedagogical and political dimension of the modernist photobook of the 1920s in Germany.

Popular culture and the context of photographic images was otherwise built on mostly passive image consumption. Placed in the hands of the beholder, however, the photobook produced the possibility of a more active engagement with photographs and became thus a school for seeing. Acquiring the ability to read photographs, i.e. photographic literacy, is what this double-page and indeed the whole sequence of 30 image pairs in Biermann’s book invite us to do. And the urgency of photographic literacy makes the medium of the photobook so relevant again today.


Mareike Stoll