Dieter Keller, Das Auge Des Krieges

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Buchkunst Berlin (here). Clothbound hard cover with tipped-on image, 118 pages, with 88 black-and-white reproductions, 9.45 x 7.9 inches. Includes texts in English and German by Adam Broomberg, Xiaofu Wang, and Dr. Norbert Moos. Edited and translated by Dr. Norbert Moos. Designed by Ana Druga and Thomas Gust. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the early hours of June 22, 1941, Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, the code name for Nazi Germany’s surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. To open the Eastern Front and incite the “Generalplan Ost” – the government’s plan for colonization, genocide, and ethnic cleansing of Central and Eastern Europe – 121 German divisions were deployed to a frontline of 1435 miles, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Among the first occupied territories was Ukraine, then called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union). Having suffered from atrocities committed by the Soviet regime – including a man-made famine killing millions in the years of 1931 and 1932; the shooting of political prisoners; the destruction of crops and food reserves; and the dismantling of factories and bombing of buildings ordered during the Soviet army’s rushed retreat in 1941 – some of the Ukrainian population initially welcomed the German forces, hoping for the country’s liberation and independence. These hopes, along with their lives and livelihoods, were soon annihilated.

During the German invasion of Ukraine, which was completed by November 1941, the country was divided between the administrations of Poland (first occupied by Nazi Germany in the West and the USSR in the East in 1939; in 1941 by Nazi Germany entirely) and Romania (a German ally), while the remaining central and western areas were organized as the Reichkommissariat Ukraine. A strategic junction for economic exploitation, all of Ukraine was key to supply the German Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany) and the German Reich with agrarian products; raw materials, such as mineral oil, coal, and wood; as well as forced labor. While approximately 2.2 million people were deported from Ukraine to Germany as slave laborers (“Ostarbeiter”, or “eastern workers”), it is estimated that over five million Ukrainians of all ethnic groups (such as Slavs), including 1.5 million Jews – all of them considered racially inferior – were killed in executions or concentration camps, or died due to famine or war-related disease.

Considering the devastating scale of this fragment of Nazi Germany’s war of extermination, it is worrying that none of this little-known Ukrainian history (or experience, or trauma) seems worth mentioning in The Eye of War – Ukraine 1941/42, a new photobook presenting a selection of eighty-eight black-and-white photographs by Dieter Keller.

Keller, who was thirty-two when he was deployed as a German soldier to the Eastern Front, took these photographs in the border area between Ukraine and Belarus. Most of his images capture destruction and decay, whether it is burning barns and farmhouses; ruined and abandoned apartment buildings; wilting flowers on roadsides; or pictures of horses, emaciated or dead, seen from afar or close up. Some depict empty landscapes, animal tracks in the snow, or are portraits of civilians, which are free of any trace of war or its impact. There is no doubt that Keller was a skilled photographer with an awareness of the aesthetic means of modernism – the play with light, shadow, and contrast; the use of perspective; the materiality of surfaces; the clean and factual visual order, which are typically associated with the New Objectivity movement. But how is one supposed to regard or appreciate these means given the context within which they were applied? Especially when it comes to the profoundly disturbing photographs of the dead, of human bodies and body parts, on the ground, scattered, sticking out – and their anonymous, yet visible, personal particulars: the manicured nails of a small hand; the turned, too-long, sleeve of a woolen sweater; the pulled-up skirt of a woman, exposing her undergarments and bare legs. While these images explicitly show the horrors that Keller witnessed and was part of (or privy to), others insinuate them: such as the cars of a freight train or a row of men walking. Given the jarring absence of captions (or context), viewers need historical knowledge to see these men as prisoners of war, and the train as one directed to or from concentration camps, or other destinations for forced labor.

Publishing photographs of war, by nature of the subject matter, is always controversial – which is why context is crucial. What remains troublingly unknown and unexplained in The Eye of War, is why Keller took these photographs. This mystery is the book’s quintessential problem – a problem that is aggravated by the accompanying texts; and that not even Keller’s, as I must admit, seemingly benevolent photographs of young girls, and children dressed in rags, many smiling into the camera, can mitigate.

While there is little to no information about the photographs themselves, there is a short biography and timeline of Keller’s life, written by Dr. Norbert Moos, who edited the book. From both texts we learn that Keller, who was the son of a successful German publisher, had a clear affinity for art. He held friendships with artists associated with the German Bauhaus and New Objectivity movement, particularly with the artist and Bauhaus teacher Oskar Schlemmer, who was ostracized by the Nazis, and of whose work Keller published a catalogue immediately after the war (Keller from 1945 onwards, apparently owned the largest offset-printing company in southern Germany). Presenting these facts wouldn’t cause concern, if they were accompanied with and embedded within diligent research pertaining to Keller’s time as soldier, and his affiliation (or non-affiliation) with Nazi Germany. Instead we read: “Details of Dieter Keller’s deployment in the German Wehrmacht are unavailable. Previous research indicates that he was assigned to administrative duties.” This biographic vagueness is punctuated by the inaccurate statement that Keller took the photographs of The Eye of War secretly because “German soldiers were prohibited from taking photos in the war zone”. As previous, often controversial, exhibitions and accompanying publications dedicated to the private and public photographs of German Wehrmacht soldiers (such as Fremde im Visier: Fotoalben aus dem Zweiten Weltkrieg (2009) or Foto-Feldpost. Geknippste Kriegserlebnisse 1939-1945 (2000)) have shown, German soldiers indeed took photographs, and were, at times, even encouraged to do so. It is true that there were certain restrictions and penalties regarding the subject matter, such as capturing executions or the death and suffering of German soldiers, however, these penalties don’t seem to have been frequently enacted. Keller might have taken these photographs secretly, but that still does not explain whether his images served as documents, evidence, trophies, or dissociating aesthetic exercises.

To be clear, not all German soldiers were supporters of the Nazi ideology and politics, or were they necessarily party members. Many were conscripted, plenty were scared of the deadly consequences of opposing the regime, some were indifferent, or pretended to be. Nor is it my intention to judge Keller in one way or the other, even more so as many German biographies of that period defy simplistic answers, and require careful investigation.

It is unclear whether Moos’s text is the result of poor research, intentional amnesia of the problems that pertain to any kind of cultural artifacts produced in immediate context with the Nazi regime, or willful blurring, if not suppression, of facts for the sake of the art historical legitimization of Keller’s work. Sentences, such as “Even by today’s standards, Keller’s photography adheres to a modern-looking visual aesthetic, which at one hand proves the visual influence of his artistic friendships, but also clearly demonstrates that the photographer uses aesthetic perception as a key to his own reality processing and mental coping,” lead me to believe the latter.

Equally frustrating is the text “Do Horses Dream of Mechanical Eyes” by Adam Broomberg and Xiaofu Wang. Written as a first-person narrative, the piece wobbles somewhere between stream of consciousness, a pseudo-psychological monologue, and an unsuccessful reinterpretation of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. The largely speculative narrative is grounded in Keller’s photographs, or rather descriptions and reminiscences thereof, and merges them with, primarily, aesthetic experiences of war – meaning, what looking felt like – except that the text does not provide any actual experiences, only imagined ones, and those do not seem grounded in a historical reality. Who is the narrator, one might wonder? Likely Keller, or, perhaps, “The Eye of War” itself. Given the largely absent narrative of the Ukrainian trauma and perspective, The Eye of War could have taken on the much-needed task to invite these voices in; but it didn’t.

Fundamental questions remain unanswered: Who is allowed to speak, and why? And how are we supposed to look and read these photographs? What do they mean? What do they demonstrate? Questions that aren’t new, but are necessary, especially when it comes to photographs of agony, and even more so when they were taken by the perpetrators.

In his essay Uses of Photography – For Susan Sontag, John Berger tackles questions of meaning, memory, and commemoration through the private and public uses of photography. At the heart of his argument is the belief that photographs in themselves (as opposed to paintings and drawings), do not narrate or carry meaning, but instead preserve appearances, which are taken out of time and context. When photographs are used within a private, that is, personal realm, “the context of the instant recorded is preserved” and continues to stay readable for those who look at them, because the photographs “remain surrounded by the meaning (or experience) from which [they] were severed”. In the public use, this context is torn from the photograph, “and becomes a dead object which, exactly because it is dead, lends itself to any arbitrary use.” This context, however, can be re-established. He writes:

“Photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened. If the living take that past upon themselves, if the past becomes an integral part of the process of people making their own history, then all photographs would reacquire a living context, they would continue to exist in time, instead of being arrested moments. It is just possible that photography is the prophecy of a human memory yet to be socially and politically achieved. Such a memory would encompass any image of the past, however tragic, however guilty, within its continuity. The distinction between the private and public uses of photography would be transcended.”

I would argue that Keller’s photographs emerge from a private use (which does not absolve them from their disturbing nature). He died in 1985 and never published these images himself. Captions and dates were presumably unnecessary for him, as Keller knew their context. Selecting eighty-eight from his 201 photographs, The Eye of War changes this private use into a public one. And while the book’s design is rather modest and sensitive, for example, with fold out-pages concealing the most violent images, the texts fail to provide both historical and present-day context. This loss does not only pertain to the photographs and those who continue to suffer from this history, its trauma – but to all of us.

Collector’s POV: It appears that about 200 original prints of Keller’s work exist at this time (the original negatives were apparently destroyed in an accident). Further information concerning the availability of vintage (or posthumous) prints is unknown.

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