Published by Safe-T-Gallery Inc.
Don Burmeister: Owner/Editor
Barbara Confino: Associate Editor
What is the appropriate context for viewing photos of someone else’s home? If the family is unknown to you, you may examine the photos for clues to who they were and how they carried out their daily lives. If it is the home of someone you know (personally or by repute), your interpretation will be colored by your opinions of that person or their work. The nature of the photographs themselves adds another dimension: are they formal architectural studies, interpretive documentation a la Paul Strand or “found” vernacular images?
This brings me to the exhibit of photographs of Haus Friedwart, the Leitz family home, on view at the Leica Gallery. When Ernst Leitz II commissioned this house, the family firm was well established and Oskar Barnack’s prototype of the Leica complete. Haus Friedwart was finished during World War I, its name translated as “waiting for peace.” During the turbulent decades that followed, it housed several generations of the Leitz family. Yet, like many photo enthusiasts, I know more about photographers who adopted the Leica than I do about them.
Frank Dabba Smith’s photographs of the house and grounds are not architectural studies (for an architectural study of this Art Deco home one can turn to Alfred Ziffler’s book about the designer “Bruno Paul, Haus Friedwart, Wetzlar”). Smith visited the house a number of times when researching the history of the Leitz family during the Nazi period and the help they gave to the persecuted. What he gives us in these twenty-eight 12 x 16 black and white prints is an impressionistic portrait of the house and its inhabitants.
Few of the images are straight on – most are shot at an oblique angle, reminding me of the off-kilter viewpoint used by Hollywood filmmakers in the 40’s and 50’s to signal a dream or recollection. Many of them show just a fragment of a room, serving as a visual synecdoche presented in a formalist style (part of the piano against a parquet floor, a chandelier, representing the music and dining rooms, respectively). There are photographs of paintings, drawings, even a couple of photos - their subjects looking out at the viewer, imparting a sense of individual personalities as well as family and tradition.
Through images of objects and interior design, Smith’s photos create a good feeling of place. However, many images need the context supplied by captions to be truly understood. A simple photo of stairs takes on added poignancy when you read that Elsie Kuhn-Leitz crawled up them in gratitude after her release in 1943 from a Gestapo jail. Or that an expressionistic crucifix had to be hidden away as Entartete Kunst during the same period.
By providing important background information, text brings out more about the family than images would alone, pointing out the limits of a purely visual history. In this case photography is not enough.
The material cries out for a classic picture story, a la Life Magazine, for a fully developed perspective on Haus Friedwart and its illustrious occupants.