Review: Leap in Time, Stills Gallery

Klemm_04Leap in Time, running at Scotland’s Centre for Photography in Cockburn Street, brings together the work of two separate artists who, between them, document Germany’s turbulent modern history in a strikingly similar, candid and intimate fashion. Although Erich Salomon and Barbra Klemm have emerged from and documented two separate halves of the 20th century, this exhibition of their black and white, low-light photographs manages to create a running historical narrative while celebrating the two artists separately.

What sets the artists apart are the roles that they play in their own photojournalism. Salomon was a self-described ‘celebrity photographer’ (at a time when the word ‘celebrity’ didn’t have Kardashian-like connotations), who used his education and command of many languages to infiltrate groups that ranged from high-profile politicians and film stars to overcrowded ships of immigrants arriving in America in search of a better life. Concealing a camera in his hat, Salomon was able to capture images of society’s most powerful and most vulnerable in almost completely unguarded states.

By contrast, Barbara Klemm didn’t need to conceal her camera in an item of clothing. When asked how she was able to capture such revealing and intimate shots, she stated ‘I tried to make myself invisible’. In stark contrast to Salomon’s brazen approach of charismatically gate-crashing events (he managed to take photographs of the signing of the anti-war Kellog-Briand Pact simply by walking into the room and taking the vacant seat of the Polish delegate), Klemm uses what the curators call her ‘unobtrusive presence’ to yield the same results. Quiet, slight, and a woman, it’s frustratingly easy to imagine how she is able to be ‘invisible’. Yet Klemm uses this invisibility to gain access to the most intimate and surreal of situations. Like Salomon, her photographic encounters range from intimate shots of Simone de Beauvoir at home, to the poor living conditions of Turkish immigrants arriving in Germany as ‘guest workers’.

What’s interesting is how, although Salomon’s black and white, low light style was born out of the then-available technology and a desire to conceal his camera, it is also something that Klemm has chosen to take on in her own work. The lack of flash is presumably to allow her to remain ‘invisible’, but through choosing to produce her pictures in black and white, Klemm manages to create a sort of timelessness about a lot of the shots; particularly when put alongside Salomon’s work, it can sometimes be hard to place the pictures in any given decade. Depressingly, this is also broadly the case with the ratio of women to men in pictures of political gatherings, with the presence of women in roles other than movie star or care-giver being all too scarce in both photographers’ pictures. Since Klemm describes her real passion in photojournalism as ‘ordinary people’, this is surprising, and may be more down to curatorial decisions than a direct representation of her work.

Alongside the portraits of recognisable figures, the exhibition also focuses on the unfortunately all-too-familiar topics of economic crisis, violence towards immigrants and abuse of political power. By providing a well researched historical context along with the photographs, the exhibition arguably makes its strongest impact through being able to present infamously iconic moments from some of Germany’s most violent and exclusionary history in ways that are unnervingly comparable to today. This is also largely down to the knack of both photographers to capture human nature rather than an explicitly historical event.

Salomon documents the rise of right-wing fascist parties following the economic crisis of 1928; in particular how the parties were able to gain control through promising lower rates of unemployment, and equating a tighter rein on immigration with less strain on public resources. Sound familiar? Salomon follows this right up until he is forced to leave his native Germany and flee to the Netherlands, before being murdered, along with his wife and son, in Auschwitz in 1944. Today, Klemm is able to continue her work at another time of European unrest; as anti-Semitic attacks in the UK more than double in the space of a year, as women disproportionately weather the fall-out of another economic crisis, and as far-right parties gain support across Europe once again. Despite the majority of her photographs being commissioned for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a centre-right German newspaper she has worked with for over 40 years, her pictures manage to observe and collect human experience rather than create political statements, although often these are one and the same.

Leap in Time is a coherent collection and exploration of human struggle and common ground. Stills Gallery has brought together two artists with approaches that achieve a common goal through very different means based on their standing in society. On display until 5th April 2015, the exhibition offers an intimate look at the personal fall-out of events we know only for their politics.

Susie Dalton