Germaine Krull: The Modernist Photographer That Time Forgot

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Nus by Germaine Krull© Estate Germaine Krull, Museum Folkwang, Essen

A new exhibition sheds light on the work of Germaine Krull, favourite of Man Ray and forgotten pioneer of modern photography

Who? In the 1920s Man Ray said to photographer Germaine Krull, “Germaine, you and I are the greatest photographers of our time; I in the old sense, you in the modern one.” Yet despite this early recognition of her work, Krull has not received the critical attention that her associates like Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy attracted. Born in 1897, on the border between Germany and the Russian Empire, Krull spent most of her childhood travelling Europe with her family and as a result received an informal education courtesy of her engineer father.

This nomadic lifestyle and unconventional upbringing laid the foundations for her colourful adult life, where she travelled extensively spending time in Paris, Amsterdam, Brazil, Thailand and India. After briefly attending photography school in Munich at the age of 18, Krull was arrested, imprisoned and underwent a fake execution for her political activity in Russia in 1921. She worked for Sonia Delauney’s textile studio in Paris in 1926 and received a Peugeot 201 as a payment for a commission for the same car, which fuelled her growing passion for automobiles. Krull was also a pioneer of the photography book, being the first artist of her generation to publish single author publications of her photographs such as Metal (1928), 100 x Paris (1929) and Etudes de Nu (1930). She also held a prominent position on the photography magazine VU which was founded in 1928 and enabled her to develop her unique style of photographic journalism.

What? The subjects of Krull’s photographs are a striking range – from nudes, to abstracted images of cityscapes, to portraits and fashion photographs for commercial publication. Using a small format Icarette camera enabled Krull to take more intimate and engaged photographs of her subjects, which can be witnessed in her striking portrait of Jean Cocteau from 1929, where the sitter’s body claustrophobically overwhelms the photographic frame. This image of Cocteau, as well as her 1930 portrait of illustrator Pol Rab, highlights Krull’s fascination with hands, which she described as “the most amazing part of a human being.” In the portrait of Rab, Krull playfully experiments with photomontage, shadow and perspective creating an unusual portrait where the sitter is placed atop a cascading fountain of disembodied hands that twist and contort themselves into impossible positions. 

Krull describes her 1928 book Metal as depicting "the essentially masculine subject of the industrial landscape." The publication features photographs of the material encountered in different urban environments throughout Europe, including the Eiffel Tower, cranes in Amsterdam port and a bridge in Marseille. It is wonderfully abstract as it contains no captions or identifying markers and the images are often difficult to identify – a consequence of Krull's experimental employment of multiple exposures, extreme angles and confusing compositions to depict her subjects. It was this type of approach that positioned Krull as a pioneer of the Nouvelle Vision, a new style of avant-garde photography.

Why? Concentrating on her period in Paris between 1928 and 1931, a new exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris features more than 130 prints by Krull, many of which have never been seen before. It offers a rare chance to see her early work from 1923 to 1924 – including the nude studies she produced of her sister and friends as well as the photographs taken for the 1930 publication Etudes de Nu – as well as her reportage photographs made for VU and images of Buddhist monuments and temples taken during her travels in South East Asia. Krull’s life-work was a photographic tour de force; she captured the elements of modern life with her unconventional style and offered a unique interpretation of the vast range of subjects she chose to depict, all of which reinforce Man Ray’s declaration that Krull was one of the greatest modern photographers of the twentieth century.

Germaine Krull: A Photographer's Journey is at Jeu de Paume, Paris until September 27.