“That is quite impossible, that has never been done before!”
“That is quite impossible, that has never been done before!” exclaims the opening line in Erich Salomon’s groundbreaking photo-essay book Famous Contemporaries In Unguarded Moments, first published in 1931.
Erich Salomon was not radically conservative. On the contrary, he and many of his Jewish family members died in Auschwitz as victims of the Nazi dictatorship. Salomon began his professional life as an attorney and turned to photojournalism only after the hyper-inflation of the early 1920s decimated his family fortune. Salomon found himself unemployed, however, his extensive social, professional and familial contacts allowed him to access elite political and social functions throughout Germany and abroad. With the help of his small and concealable Ermanox camera, Salomon discreetly photographed these events and sold his exclusive images to the major politically-mainstream illustrated magazines at home and the rest of Europe.
The three chapters of Salomon’s introduction, ‘The Struggle for the Possibility to Shoot Pictures’, ‘The Struggle to Shoot the Picture Itself’ and ‘The Struggle after the Shot’, describe all stages of photographic production as a struggle. Sometimes this struggle involves mastering photographic technology in difficult conditions. At other times, it concerns photographers’ needs to defend themselves against accusations of copyright infringement and the invasion of privacy. In the final paragraph of ‘The Struggle after the Shot’, Salomon introduces a metaphor that defines photography as both a specific political act and a broader symbol of struggle, “Thus the photojournalist’s activity, if he wants to be more than a mere manual labourer, is a constant struggle, a struggle after the image, and as with hunting, he only gets the booty if he is possessed with the passion of the hunt for the image.” Regardless of the photographer’s personal politics, successful photography involves risk taking and circumvention of laws and societal norms.
Throughout the preface, where Salomon recounts the difficulties he encountered during attempts to photograph exclusive high-society functions, one English language sentence reappears several times-“That is quite impossible, that has never been done before”. This leitmotiv and Salomon’s responses to it reveal the right wing politico-aesthetic implications of photography. The sentence always comes from the mouths of bureaucrats who try to prevent Salomon from photographing private functions. Salomon details, for example, the objections he encountered when he tried to infiltrate and photograph elite English clubs. “ ‘That is quite impossible, that has never been done before!’ This is the sentence that was flung at me almost every time when, in early 1929, in the service of photojournalism, I attempted to illuminate with the camera the hitherto closed realm of English club and society life, the banquets with their medieval masters of ceremonies and similar things.”
Images 17a and 17b of Famous Contemporaries are exemplary moments of the candid photographer’s covert tactics. Salomon’s photographs expose politics as a kind of elite social club, in spite of his close personal connections with Weimar politicians and support for democracy. The photographs depict a ‘before and after’ sequence taken at 11pm and 1am during an evening session of the Second Hague Conference in January 1930. At this conference, European powers signed the Young Plan, one of the triumphs of Weimar democracy. Without the caption, however, one might easily mistake the tuxedoed men who surround a table littered with wine glasses and coffee cups as members of an elitist gentlemen’s club. Although the caption implies that their exhaustion in the second image arises from the prolonged negotiations, the photograph is more ambiguous. They could just as easily be tired from an evening of drunken revelry, paid for by unsuspecting taxpayers.
The relevance of Famous Contemporaries might seem unremarkable to the modern reader because today candid photographs of celebrities and catastrophes regularly fill newspaper and television screens. Yet one must remember that in Europe images of this kind were entirely new forms of photography because of the new technology. Now, as then, media fixation on violence, catastrophe or governmental instability is more than an objective record of important historical events.