SALLY LARSEN      The German Eye in America -- FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

What do you mean by The German Eye?

    SL:The German Eye is a complex idea that combines an audience which is interested in learning from pictures together with an industrial ability to publish pictures and with a willingness to go get those pictures. The German Eye in America is foto reportage in its widest sense, remaining neutral and objective while inspired by the intrepid spirit of Gutenberg, Goethe, von Humboldt, and Karl May.

Why limit this survey to photography?

    SL:Photography samples real life in real time; it can be actual history. Music, painting, and poetry are always impressions. That is their reason to exist.

Why limit this survey to German photography in the Americas?

    SL: The German photographic legacy in the Americas is of particular interest to me because I am a Native American. German curiosity about indigenous culture and natural man seems objective and sincere. I also want people to ponder whether there is a genetics of aesthetics. Is there a German aesthetic? Or a Chinese aesthetic, or a Jewish aesthetic, or a Navajo aesthetic? I have explained that I began this as my own ethnicity search: I want to know what it means to be Native American with Apache and Aleutic blood.

How do you define a German?

    SL: Photographers born in Germany, or born into the contingent German language diaspora which includes Austria, Prussia, Luxembourg, and German-speaking Switzerland. Because borders have changed since the advent of photography, I have needed to consider birthplace, geography and mother tongue. I have included a very few photographers born outside of Germany if they qualify on the basis of heritage and language, and if they have worked with the German publishing machine. I use the German spelling foto reportage instead of photo reportage to suggest the language centered issues. Does your mother tongue shape your thinking? Walter Benjamin certainly thought language shaped his ability to think.

Who are the photographers on The German Eye in America list? Why include Robert Frank? Why not exclude Alfred Stieglitz? What about Edward Steichen, László Moholy-Nagy and Weegee?

    SL: Robert Frank was born in Zurich, the heart of German Switzerland, where his father had relocated after becoming stateless in the wake of WWI. German language and German society shaped Robert Frank's world view. His biographers make reference to German Jewish roots and to the fact that Robert Frank corresponded with his parents in German. I have written to Robert Frank at his home in New York City, explaining that I have included him in The German Eye in America, and asking him to disqualify himself if he feels this is inappropriate. He has not chosen to do so.

    Alfred Stieglitz was born in America to German speaking immigrants who subsequently returned to Germany with the family so that their children might receive better education. From age 17 to 26, Alfred studied photography and publishing in Germany. He loved Berlin. Because his father was German, Stieglitz was entitled to claim German citizenship, however, he opted to return to America. Once back in New York, Alfred Stieglitz set out to implement what he had learned in Germany about photography and publishing.

    László Moholy-Nagy is a bit more complex because I have yet to verify that his first language was German. Born László Weisz to Jewish-Hungarian parents living in Austro-Hungary, he later changed his German surname to Nagy adding Moholy as a placename signifier. By his late teens he was in the Austro-Hungarian army, and not long after WWI made his way to Vienna before settling in Berlin by 1920. He found himself comfortable in German speaking society and by 1923 he was a professor at the Bauhaus. He remained in Germany until emigrating to London in 1935, then on to Chicago in 1937 where he became part of the New Bauhaus. I am inclined to include László Moholy-Nagy.

    Edward Steichen was born in Luxembourg where the official language is a haute-German dialect. His family emigrated to the United States when he was an infant, first to upper Michigan, then settling in Milwaukee. Steichen would come to study at Pio Nona, a German Catholic mens school. By age sixteen he would be an apprentice lithographer and he would already own a camera. Steichen was coming of age with photography and living amid German immigrants, yet it is painterly impressionism and the glitter of Paris which were to capture his imagination. There is a rationale to include Steichen, however, I am inclined to exclude Steichen because he came to photography in America, because he never showed any interest in the German publishing machine, and because he was so enthralled with the salon aesthetics of Paris.

    Arthur Fellig (aka Weegee), like Moholy-Nagy, was born in an Austro-Hungarian empire which included Hungary and Poland and which was German language dominated. More like Steichen, however, the young Arthur Fellig moved to America when he was a child. He learned to be a photographer in America, and he became the acclaimed Weejee (Ouija) in New York City. I am not so inclined to include Weegee although his photography would fit right in.

Why not limit this survey to strict foto reportage, or to those responding to the romances of Karl May?

    SL: Native Americans revere story tellers. It will not surprise them to hear that a German storyteller inspired so many German travelers to bring back pictures and thereby preserved these history stories of great value to Native People. It will seem poetry to it seems to me. Gropius, who exerted such an influence on the Bauhaus, regarded photos as news. I am proceeding with that in mind.

    German photographers have explored the Americas for 160 years, its land, flora, fauna, indigenous cultures, archeological legacies, and its modern times. It is this broad, uncurated brush which combines to weave an American tapestry for those who would know more about their unvarnished history. Were one, for instance, to limit the scope to those who were directly inspired by Karl May’s Winnetou after the mid 1870s, you would leave out the Germans photographers here before 1875, those who were seeking the natural man of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the global interconnectedness of Alexander von Humboldt. You would see only the Southwestern USA, and you would leave out all of latin America.

Why include your own drawings and paintings when talking about photography?

    SL: Photography is my theme, not a limit. I am a multi-media artist: I show photographs; I show paintings; I show videos; I create books; I use computers and the internet. Melding my big painterly maps of the Americas with my tightly composed photographs of the books emphasizes that America is more than the USA. My big graphic map paintings establish a determinate.

What is your goal?

    SL: My immediate goals are to arrange to show The German Eye in America installation of image projection, sculpture, photography, and paintings, and to arrange the publication of The German Eye in America syllabus. My long term goal is to develop The German Eye in America data mine until it is acquired by a fine art collector or by a curatorial institution as a conceptual art study center.

Do other artists think about study centers when creating individually expressive work?

    SL: Every artist understands the need to be something larger than one person leading one life: consider Warhol, Araki, Tillmans...before them Stieglitz. There are different ways and means.

Is there a good reference which speaks to your approach to The German Eye in America project?

    SL:Robert Darnton's article The Library in the New Age (The New York Review, 12 June 2008) makes a great case for the continuing importance of printed books in an internet dominated world. Darnton would seem to understand the need to keep books in sight as we come to rely evermore on the inherently second-hand nature of internet information.

You plan to photograph these books, and to exhibit appropriations from them. Are Copyrights and Appropriation serious issues for The German Eye in America project?

    SL:Yes. Fair use and use-of-persona-to-sell need redefinition because the Internet has changed everything. The work in these old photography books will be lost if it cannot accomodate the openness of the digital world. Discerning between editorial fair use and commercial exploitation is my approach. Hilla Becher volunteered the benchmark: So long as everyone is treated equally, there is no problem. For instance, were I to publish The German Eye in America syllabus with two pages for everyone else yet twenty pages for Bernd & Hilla Becher, that would be a problem. Alternatively, were I to use a Becher classic on a cover for The German Eye in America, that would be an unfair use of persona to sell unless I had arranged prior permission. Of course, appropriation without attribution is always ill-mannered. It gets more sticky when I take a topical cross-section of these photographers and I layer their photographs into a larger composition or a multi-media presentation. I am trying to identify an enduring social network and its concerns, this is the only way to show it. I identify all sources, even those out of copyright, and my selections are always global: all the women photographers, everyone who photographed Mexico or Rio or New York City or the World Trade Center, et cetera. I submit what I am doing is fair use and that it is in everyone's best interest.

What message do you hope to convey to your audience?

    SL: The message is What remains from the past is a key to the future: Native America can find itself in these books and photographs. I would like the German people to see how the German taste for look books and for foto reportage has had an unintended consequence of great value to Native Americans.

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