Contemporary Photography Vintage Photography  
Paul Berlanga Essay
from Josef Breitenbach: Munich, Paris, New York (Stephen Daiter Gallery, 2003)

The dedication of the artist in the face of continual adversity is nowhere better exemplified than in the struggles and accomplishments of Josef Breitenbach.  This peripatetic artist was born into a respected middle class family in Bavaria in 1896.   His father, a wine merchant and non-religious Jew, was also that rare successful businessman who took a strong interest in the fortunes of the working classes.
Josef, classically educated, embraced his father’s enlightened social philosophies but was less successful in acquiring his mercantile acumen. The wine business provided ample reason for travel and young Breitenbach became increasingly engaged with photography on his trips.  Early images such as the Eiffel Tower (1928), Carnival (c.1930) and Vertical View, (c.1932), are fine examples of the new photographic spirit, or zeitgeist that was prevalent, although Breitenbach chose not to align himself with any specific art movement.

As Breitenbach’s wine business receded, his photographic interests took center stage and he opened a studio in Munich and slowly began to build a successful trade centered on portraiture of theatrical figures. His stage connections here derived partially from contacts with some of the creative individuals who constituted the leftist political organizations in which he had participated from about 1918 until the assassination of his political mentor Kurt Eisner in 1931. Eschewing further political activity, he concentrated on his new career. His portraits successfully combined psychological depth with the modernist penchant of an intimately close camera lens and unusual framing.  During his Munich period, he also began a lifelong study of the female nude and made the genre his own.

In a rare moment, he took a photograph at a public appearance of the Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, Franz von Papen, and sent it to him.  Von Papen received it enthusiastically and responded with a warm congratulatory letter of thanks.  As the power of the National Socialist Party solidified, Hitler’s minions grew bolder and members of the nascent Gestapo arrived unannounced at Breitenbach’s doorstep - more because of his political background than his Jewish heritage.  Breitenbach presented this fortuitous letter, probably saving his life. After confiscating his passport, the agents left to check their sources.  Breitenbach decided it was time to leave Germany.

With a borrowed passport, a desperate Breitenbach eventually made his way to the Montparnasse section of Paris with his son of a failed marriage.  They were almost without resources, and French laws were not kind to foreign artists of little means. Excruciatingly, Josef began again from scratch, offering lessons, peddling book proposals, advertising his portraiture, and beginning a body of surrealist work, often having to choose between food and film.  He also became an integral part of the exile community of German artists who were dedicated to awakening the world to the travesty that their country was becoming.  In addition to his now classic portraits of artists like Bertold Brecht, Max Ernst, and James Joyce, he performed the invaluable service of visually documenting the efforts of these writers, actors, and artists, from theatre productions to installations and exhibits underscoring the distinctions between the growing horror of the true Germany and the benign façade still being proffered by the strengthening Reich.

During this period Breitenbach became immersed in the surrealist movement and his natural tendency toward experimentation found welcome expression in images that are as fresh (and often disconcerting) today as when they were made.  Breitenbach was an early explorer in the application of color to black and white photographs through selective toning and bromoil transfer. He would carefully lay washes of bright warm tones in thoroughly modernist fashion on images that actually prefigure Andy Warhol among others.  Ever curious, he would experiment with numerous variations on a single image. Eventually he began to find not only some commercial remuneration but also critical success, and participated in a number of well-received exhibitions. He had his first one-man show in 1934 at the prestigious Librairie Galerie de La Pleiade, which showcased avante-garde photography.  In 1938 he exhibited some work at the Louvre.  It would seem the refugee artist had arrived.

However, the year after this triumph, Breitenbach found himself in an internment camp for German nationals, as France considered its response to the growing concerns that threatened its borders. To add insult to injury, while there he received an eviction notice from his landlord over back rent. 1939 and 1940 proved a complicated mix of volunteer and forced labor for the doubly exiled artist.   By 1940 rumor and uncertainty gave way to brief German assault and swift French capitulation.  Breitenbach witnessed the Vichy government allowing other interned workers and detainees to be packed into boxcars and sent to Poland.  Once again his world reeled and he escaped, running behind enemy lines for 10 days.  

Breitenbach once again dodged fate, this time with the aid of Ruth Snowman, his student, lover, and business agent who implored her aunt in Chicago to gather the funds necessary to secure his safe passage and arrival in the United States.  He had made it to Barcelona by way of Marsailles where his work and a transatlantic ticket waited.  A loan was made available at the Northern Trust Bank in Chicago to be released only to his person and available only up to a certain date.  Against the odds, Breitenbach made the journey and the deadline.

The refugee made New York City his residence, (eventually for life) and tried to assimilate, even changing his name to Joseph.  Once again, he started over.  He worked for a number of magazines including Fortune where Walker Evans assigned him to an article about the uses of scrap metal in regard to the war effort. It resulted in a remarkable interpretation of these images hovering near complete abstraction with surrealist overtones

Two of the most profound examples of Breitenbach’s American surrealism explore the dual anxiety of war and its corresponding displacement.  In We New Yorkers, Josef / Joseph declares himself a member of our frenetic culture, symbolized by a human nervous system laid bare against a backdrop of the Rockefeller Center  / Manhattan skyline.  The white windows irregularly dotting the dark and looming edifices read as a template for the organized chaos and anxiety of a new era. (Breitenbach was grateful to be in America, becoming a U. S. citizen in 1946, but he also had few illusions left).

In Omen, (1942), a similarly flayed individual poises tentatively along the ocean’s edge, the sky behind him a void save for a menacing squadron of warplanes.  In other work his surrealist tendencies resurfaced in photographs filled with second meaning; apparently straightforward pictures quietly laden with other significance. Among these are his haunting images of a cemetery in New York City inundated with the tickertape of VE Day celebrations, dense with alternative meanings. They remain among his most psychologically intriguing works.  
Teaching provided Breitenbach’s main income, and finances were to remain a constant source of concern - it was sixteen years before the Chicago loan was repaid.  Invited in 1944 by Josef Albers to teach at Black Mountain College, he later made a dual career of the New School for Social Research and Cooper Union, both in New York City, retiring by 1975. A popular instructor, even here he encountered turmoil in protecting his tenure during regular absences to work in Asia.  During these years he took respite and inspiration from regular trips to German culture nudist camps in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Here he created photographs, starkly inquisitive and of unapologetic candor and sensuality.

Breitenbach created his last major body of work in Asia, on intermittent sojourns from his teaching career, mainly in Japan and Korea.  Done in part under the auspices of the United Nations, these pictures are strong, affectionate, and empathetic.  In 1954 the Korean work formed the basis for the inaugural exhibit at Helen Gee’s legendary Limelight Gallery, in Greenwich Village.  Breitenbach also found critical success with Edward Steichen, who included him in numerous exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, including the epic Family of Man.

Josef Breitenbach was largely an autodidact and a ceaseless experimenter whose body of work revealed a range of interests broad enough to make him difficult to classify.  Throughout the upheavals in his life he retained a strong faith in his art and a belief in his importance in the history of photography.  Inexplicably, he had kept his pre-war work hidden while prophesying to his incredulous friends that he would be known as a great artist after his death.  Even while the accolades afforded many of his contemporaries were eluding him, he was secretly preparing his archive to be discovered by curators he would never meet.  

Incredibly, his plan worked His elegant pictures survived the Nazis, transported sub rosa from Munich to Paris to Barcelona to New York. Once there they again were threatened, this time by ignorant landlords and flooding in the basement of his apartment building.  Once again they survived.

Since his death in 1984 and the discovery of his oeuvre, international exposure in the form of six published books and numerous museum exhibitions have resulted in wide critical acclaim and inclusion in various public and private collections.  Breitenbach’s once preposterous prophecy has proven to be correct.
©Paul Berlanga, 2003
Director, Stephen Daiter Gallery

Biography Sketch
Josef Breitenbach
artist statement

Exhibition: Josef Breitenbach: Munich, Paris, New York
September 5 - Nov 1, 2003

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January 5 - Mar 2, 2007

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