Frances Guerin


On her book Through Amateur Eyes: Film and Photography in Nazi Germany

Cover Interview of May 13, 2012

A close-up

I would hope that the browser who picked up Through Amateur Eyes in a bookstore would turn to the image section in the middle of the book.

The archival images that the book discusses and analyses are unique and very powerful, primarily because of their age, but also because they take us to places that we would not otherwise go.  There is something really amazing about seeing a reproduction of a photograph that has sat in an old soldier’s attic for seventy years, and that takes us inside his experiences on the battlefield.  I also think the University of Minnesota Press has done a brilliant job in the reproduction of these images. And lastly, without these old photographs and films, there is no book. As far as was possible I insisted on placing the image and its concerns at the center of my interpretations.  Thus, the images need to be the first thing readers see, and I believe that the images will hook any reader into the rest of the book.

My favorite chapter is Chapter Three, on the photographs of Walter Genewein.  He was the Chief Accountant of the Lodz Ghetto, and was involved in overseeing its massive wartime production.  The Ghetto itself is fascinating because it was hermetically sealed, meaning that it was fully self-sufficient, but also an inescapable prison.  Genewein found a camera in among the goods that had been confiscated from the Jews on arrival, and he started taking photographs with it around 1939.  He saw himself as an amateur photographer and really believed he was photographing the reality of day-to-day life in the Ghetto.  But of course, his vision is only one perspective of the tortuous living conditions in the Lodz Ghetto.  The photographs tell of his mission to promote the efficiency and productivity of the Ghetto, but, contrary to his intentions, they also let slip other realities.  In the photos we see the oppression, the inhuman conditions, the hardships suffered.

Genewein also became somewhat obsessive about the scientific reality of the photographic image, and he used his existing relationship with I G Farben (to whom he paid the bills for the dyes used in the Ghetto’s clothing workshops), giving them directions about how to perfect the film material.  So in Genewein’s images we find an amazing confluence of circumstances, all of which are dependent on the ghettoization of the Lodz Jews.

The discovery of Genewein’s images is another wonderful tale full of twists and turns.  They first turned up in a used bookstore in Vienna, where they were given by a “friend” of the Chief Accountant’s. They came in a handmade wooden box, each one numbered and titled, in Genewein’s fastidious way.  Then they were exhibited in Frankfurt at the Jewish Museum, where the filmmaker Dariusz Jablonski saw them and wove them into his film Amateur Photographer.  Some years later a whole duplicate set turned up in a yard sale in Bethesda, the suburb of Washington DC. They came in a box marked “Daddy’s Europe Oldies”, and a piece of paper inside tells us they were found and brought back to the US by a liberator. The paper inside read: “Slides from a Jewish Ghetto (German Labor Camp) Litzmannstadt, Poland. Found in home of German Director of camp in Bremen Germany.”

Genewein numbered all of his images, and when those found in Bethesda are put together with those given to Löcker, we realize there are gaps, numbers missing from the series. And so, we know there are still slides that have not yet been discovered. The story of Genewein’s images has not yet come to an end. This open-endedness attracts me, because it is the basis of my interpretations that, as I say, are only one perspective, which like Genewein’s, is a perspective that can never be a definitive accounts of what took place in this chapter of history.