Edited by Raz Samira
(Scheidegger & Speiss with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2021)
“We will be hearing a lot more from Aenne Biermann,” predicted a 1931 article in the German monthly journal, Das Magazin. “The much-loved New Objectivity loses all of its scariness in her tender hands—she handles the things her eyes see with delicacy and the things seem to reward this delicacy with pictorial vibrancy.” Just two years later, Biermann died at age 34 of liver disease. A few years after that, a shipping container holding her over 3,400 carefully numbered negatives was confiscated by the Nazi Wehrmacht, leaving the prints transported in her family’s luggage and others dispersed to friends and museums in her lifetime as the only remnants of her photography career. As it turned out, for decades nothing was heard of Aenne Biermann.
That started to change in 1987, when her work was re-introduced to the public through an exhibition at the Folkwang Museum in Essen. Other exhibitions showcasing her surviving 400 photographs followed in her native Germany, and over the past few years she’s been the subject of solo shows at the Museum Ludwig, Munich’s Pinakothek der Moderne, and Museum Folkwang. Now, a new publication—Aenne Biermann: Up Close and Personal—is the first English-language monograph about her since 1930, consolidating the elusive known facts about Biermann and introducing her to new audiences.
A self-taught photographer, Biermann first bought a camera after the births of her daughter, Helga, and son, Gerd, with the intention of documenting their childhoods. She then set up a darkroom in her home, but within a short time her lens began to stray from her kids as she also took close-ups of toys, eggs, plants, and other imagery from her immediate surroundings in masterful high contrast. Her prints soon attracted attention, and were shown in significant photography exhibitions of the 1920s and ’30s alongside practitioners such as Herbert Bayer, Berenice Abbott, Florence Henri, and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Active between 1925–32, a period spanning Germany’s recovery from World War I and before the Nazi rise to power, in her lifetime Biermann was considered a major representative of German New Objectivity.
Her previous English-language monograph was Aenne Biermann: 60 Fotos (1930), published by art historian and critic Franz Roh as the second installment in a series about avant-garde photographers (immediately following celebrated Bauhaus photographer László Moholy-Nagy). It came just past the midpoint of Biermann’s flashbulb seven-year career. But unlike this, and the handful of exhibition catalogues that have been published about Biermann since, the current monograph (released to coincide with a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art that ran from May to November of last year) is unique in that it includes 27 photographs held by the photographer’s descendants in Israel—as well as their narrative. Biermann’s husband and children escaped Nazi Germany separately at varying points in the 1930s, forced to flee due to their Jewish identities. Later, because of a combination of their geographic distance from Germany and the lack of awareness about Biermann’s work until now in Israel, they never shared the vintage photographs that decorate their homes. “This portrait of her husband,” explains Raz Samira, editor of the monograph and photography curator at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, “we literally took it off the wall.”
Other works borrowed from the Biermann living room walls and family albums, which appear exclusively in Aenne Biermann: Up Close and Personal, are a pensive self-portrait, a dramatic close-up of a pale orchid, and a candid 1928 snapshot of Helga and Gerd playing in the bathtub. The book also draws on the recollections of the Biermann family, and is the first to include the family in its production.
Among the four major essays that compose the book is one written by Biermann's granddaughter, Edna Goldacki Biermann, who imparts intimate details missing from the more scholarly content, recounting Biermann’s basic biography and discussing her place in the history of photography. Edna writes about never knowing her grandmother, discovering that Aenne loved playing piano, and about how her grandfather carefully packaged all his late wife’s negatives and photographic equipment together with select family belongings in a shipping container meant to follow them to Palestine, to no avail. It is evident from her words that the fate of the photographs in that missing container has haunted multiple generations of Biermanns.
Loss is an overarching theme in the monograph, even in the essays of curators and scholars who are left guessing about much of Biermann’s oeuvre, accepting the fact that many questions will likely always remain unanswered. Only a tenth of her photographs survived World War II and the passage of a century, and Biermann published just a single text in her lifetime. Still, the monograph and recent wave of exhibitions convey optimism, too, as a sign that we may yet be hearing a lot more from Aenne Biermann.