Aenne Biermann: up close and personal
Edited by Raz Samira
(Scheidegger & Speiss with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2021)
“We will hear a lot more about Aenne Biermann,” predicted a 1931 article in the German monthly, From the store. “The beloved new objectivity loses all its fear in its tender hands – it handles the things its eyes see with delicacy and things seem to reward that delicacy with painterly dynamism.” Just two years later, Biermann died at age 34 of liver disease. A few years later, a shipping container containing over 3,400 carefully numbered negatives was confiscated by the Nazi Wehrmacht, leaving the prints carried in his family’s luggage and others scattered among friends and museums during his lifetime. as the only remnants of his career as a photographer. In the end, for decades, nothing was heard of Aenne Biermann.
This began to change in 1987, when his work was reintroduced to the public through an exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. Further exhibitions featuring her 400 surviving photographs followed in her native Germany, and in recent years she has been the subject of solo exhibitions at Museum Ludwig, Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne and Museum Folkwang. Now a new post—Aenne Biermann: up close and personal– is the first English-language monograph on her since 1930, consolidating the elusive known facts about Biermann and introducing her to new audiences.
A self-taught photographer, Biermann first bought a camera after the birth of his daughter, Helga, and son, Gerd, with the aim of documenting their childhood. She then set up a darkroom in her home, but before long her lens began to drift away from her children as she also took close-ups of toys, eggs, plants and other images. of its immediate surroundings with masterful high contrast. His prints quickly attracted attention and were featured in important photography exhibitions of the 1920s and 1930s alongside practitioners such as Herbert Bayer, Berenice Abbott, Florence Henri and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Active between 1925 and 1932, a period covering Germany’s recovery from World War I and before the rise to power of the Nazis, Biermann was seen during her lifetime as a major exponent of the new German objectivity.
His previous monograph in English was Aenne Biermann: 60 Photos (1930), published by art historian and critic Franz Roh as the second part of a series on avant-garde photographers (immediately following the famous Bauhaus photographer László Moholy-Nagy). It came just past the midpoint of Biermann’s seven-year career. But unlike that, and the handful of exhibition catalogs that have been published on Biermann since, the current monograph (published to coincide with a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that ran from May to November of last year) is unique in that it includes 27 photographs held by the photographer’s descendants in Israel, along with their story. Biermann’s husband and children fled Nazi Germany separately at various times in the 1930s, forced to flee because of their Jewish identity. Later, due to a combination of their geographic distance from Germany and lack of awareness of Biermann’s work thus far in Israel, they never shared the vintage photographs that adorn their homes. “This portrait of her husband,” says Raz Samira, monograph editor and curator of photography at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, “we literally peeled it off the wall.”
Other works borrowed from the walls of the Biermann salon and from the family albums, which appear exclusively in Aenne Biermann: up close and personal, are a pensive self-portrait, a dramatic close-up of a pale orchid, and a candid 1928 snapshot of Helga and Gerd playing in the bathtub. The book also draws on memories of the Biermann family and is the first to include the family in its production.
Among the four major essays that make up the book is one written by Biermann’s granddaughter, Edna Goldacki Biermann, which gives intimate details absent from the more scholarly content, telling Biermann’s basic biography and discussing his place in the history of photography. Edna writes that she never knew her grandmother, that she discovered that Aenne loved to play the piano, and that her grandfather carefully packed all the negatives and photographic material of his late wife with effects selected personnel in a shipping container destined to follow them to Palestine, to no avail. It is evident from his words that the fate of the photographs in this missing container has haunted several generations of Biermann.
Loss is a dominant theme in the monograph, even in essays by curators and scholars who allow themselves to guess at much of Biermann’s work, accepting that many questions will likely always remain unanswered. Only a tenth of his photographs survived World War II and the passage of a century, and Biermann published only one text during his lifetime. Yet the monograph and the recent wave of exhibitions also convey optimism, a sign that we may still be hearing a lot more from Aenne Biermann.