She’s the woman photographer I had never heard of, the feminist who loved the road and cars, and believed that the real photographers were the reporters. She published photography books and illustrated stories with her images before anyone else thought of photo-novels. And yet, who remembers her name?
Whilst there is a retrospective of her work at the Jeu de Paume in Paris at the moment, this is not really Germaine Krull the photographer who interests me. I did go to the exhibition, but call me jaded, I did not really enjoy it. It seemed like a lot of fuss for nothing truly remarkable.
But even though her work does not really interest me, I am truly fascinated by the woman. Her life, and what we can glimpse of her personality from secondary and tertiary sources do hold my attention. With a life spend photographying people and things nobody was interested in, travelling the world and taking radical political stances, Germaine Krull is truly a woman worth mentioning.
So who is Germaine Krull?
Born in Poland in 1897, Krull was part of the Spartacist uprising in Germany in 1919, was imprisoned in Moscow in 1921, photographed some ambiguous female nudes, before settling in Paris in 1926 where she produced most of her work, firstly in fashion for Sophia Delaunay, but most notably for VU Magazine. Metal structures, Parisian life, marginal world, popular neighbourhood and the suburbs were her preferred subjects.
Aiming to work for Free France, she moved to Brazil in 1940, before being sent to Brazzaville in 1942, Algiers in 1943, and witnessing the Battle of Alsace and the liberation of the Vaihingen concentration camp.
She moved to Bangkok in 1946, becoming manager of the Oriental Hotel and travelled throughout Thailand and Burma to photograph temples and statues, before heading to India and taking up the cause of Tibetan exiles, producing a book, Tibetans in India, in 1968. She died in Germany in 1985.
Throughout her life, it seems she was drawn like a moth to a flame to unusual (for the time) subjects, radical ideas and forgotten causes. She was not the most famous or acclaimed photographer, she died without much, at her sister’s in Germany, having struggled in her later years to make a living out of her art. But she was, and this might resonate with us today, a free spirit who still managed to pretty much do what she liked, when she liked it. Be it getting a car (commissioned for an ad, she asked for a car in payment) to reporting on the homeless of Paris, producing homo-erotic nudes or Tibetan portraits. It might look like she was all over the place, and she was, quite literally: her life and career spanned decades and four continents; she did portraits of Cocteau and Malraux, of hands (one of her fascination), of working Parisian women, of homeless people; she snapped the Eiffel Tower and illustrated the first photo-novel all with the same gusto.
Whatever one thinks of her body of work, there is no doubt possible in my mind that she was a remarkable woman. One that is still relevant today for her bravery and devil-may-care attitude, her involvement in political, social and even religious causes, her willingness to move, and keep moving, across oceans, borders and subjects, always finding herself in the thick of it.