By: Nadiya Alexandra
In Selfhood, Place and Ideology in German Photo Albums, 1933-1945, Maiken Umbach discusses the relationship between amateur snapshots and propagandisctic and commercial photos. The discussion of mass photography having a transformative effect at the time is fascinating, however, I would like to refute one of Umbach’s arguments:
“Spectacle during fascism was not merely an ideological ploy used by a regime to manipulate a population. It was coproduced by countless actors, from above, from below, and, most typically, from in between”
It is conceivable that the spectacle of fascism was coproduced, however, I do not find the photographs from that era as evidence of this claim. Or, at the very least, I would argue that this “coproduction” in the form of photography was not as intentional as Umbach suggests. On the other hand, the production of propagandistic and commercial photos was intentional, and I think offers more insight and opportunity for analysis.
In studying civilian snapshots, there are a few problems. Firstly, as Umbach admits, it is often impossible to tell if an image from civilian life was taken in the 1920s, 30s or 40s, as many photos did not have captions. This makes linking civilian photographs to fascism difficult. Secondly, Umbach discusses the style of photos produced as “risk-averse”; this implies that German civilians knew there was danger to be aware of. However, in Strength through Joy – Consumerism and Mass Tourism, Shelley Baranowski points out that many Aryan Germans were blissfully unaware of the terror and tragedy faced by second-class people. Additionally, Baranowski points out that many Strength through Joy (KdF) tourists, “ignored or trivialized Nazi terror and the regime’s minacious foreign policy.” If we assume that Baranowski is correct here, why was there a need to produce risk-averse photos?
Umbach also describes German civilian photo stereotypes, such as “the natural German,” “good times,” and “on the road.” The argument concerning “good times” is that these photos show an alignment with the way the regime sought to “naturalize” political ambitions. However, could there be a more simple explanation for these kinds of photos? In my opinion, people generally try to take photos to capture and display happy memories (unless they are photographers). Even today, most people’s Facebook and Instagram profiles are carefully curated to show the best parts of one’s life. Even in times of turmoil, I think is a natural human reaction, or even coping mechanism, to capture and hold on to the “good times.”
Another one of Umbach’s arguments is that “on the road” photographs show a fetishization of roads and vehicles, and “a clear sense that roads…are seen as spaces of a peculiar charismatic power, as trajectories, literally and metaphorically for transporting smiling travelers into a brave new world.” Again, I question how intentional these actions were from the amateur photographers, or how unique the obsession with travel was to Nazi Germany? Perhaps an argument can be made here that such photos show Germany’s striving for modernity?
Again, my main question to Umbach is how intentional was this alleged coproduction of ideology from below? Was there indeed an ideology at play here? My guess would be that many of the civilian photos were taken without much thought for political ideology or risk-aversion. I think that the quantity of “good times” photos and “on the road” photos cannot be argued as showing production of ideology from below. However, this does not mean that there was not coproduction of ideology from below at all. Going back to the idea of the pragmatism of fascism, focus on travel and leisure was a very pragmatic strategy to keep the support from German civilians. Fascism had to be responsive to be pragmatic.