JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2017 by Steidl (here) and C/O Berlin (here) for the exhibition Willi Ruge: Fotoaktuell at C/O Berlin (September 16 to December 3, 2017). Hardcover, 268 pages, with approx. 300 black-and-white photographic reproductions, 8×10 inches. With essays in untranslated German by Felix Hoffmann, Ute Eskildsen, and Malte Zierenberg. €28.00 (Cover and spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: The vertiginous black-and-white photograph on the cover of the Willi Ruge catalog shows what appears to be a deadly accident in progress—a man falling from a great height. We see only his billowing pants and well-shod feet, dangling helplessly from the top edge of the frame, as he zooms toward what may be his fatal destination, the buildings and streets of a city or town.
Man Ray or Alfred Hitchcock would proudly have taken credit for such an image, one derived from panicky nightmares, the lingua franca of Surrealism and suspense. The trousered legs and the ground below are blurred and separate, as if the two elements had been pasted together on a drafting table as a photo-collage, or perhaps in a studio by photographing a dummy’s legs against a projected backdrop, aided by an electric fan.
The facts behind the picture are more prosaic. Ruge was a German photojournalist, and this is a self-portrait, one in a sequence from a story he shot in 1931 after jumping from an airplane. Published under the title (“Ich fotografiere mich beim Absturtz mit dem Fallschirm—I photograph myself while plummeting down with my parachute”) the image belongs to the heyday of Modernism when avant-garde artists and daredevil amateurs were aiming cameras in any direction that would alter earth-bound perceptions of reality.
To some viewers at the time, though, Ruge’s stunt may have triggered darker thoughts. Taken two years after the start of the Great Depression, the photograph could be read by the unwary as the final act of a ruined Berlin businessman as he leapt to his death from an office window or roof. The man’s tumbling legs could even be Weimar Germany itself, struggling to steady itself in a period of political chaos and economic uncertainty. The flailing helplessness aroused by his plight has more in common with the immersive dream-state of cinema—with Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, as she is spun around in a Kansas tornado—than to other examples of aerial documentary photography.
Ruge’s falling man was featured prominently in publicity for MoMA’s 2015 exhibition, Modern Photographs from the Thomas Walter Collection, 1909-1949, and for many constituted their introduction to the photographer.
Its only rival for reproductive fame is another self-portrait, this one shot from the ground looking up at Ruge, who stands and looks down—legs splayed like two legs of a tripod—with a medium-format camera gripped in his hands. This looming figure, who stares down as well as at us, was incorporated into the poster designed by Jan Tschichold for the German blockbuster exhibition Film und Foto in 1929.
What is most striking about this survey (1919-1953) of Ruge’s career is that he did almost nothing so daring or evocative, before or after, this two-year winning streak. For much of his life (1892-1961), he was a typical photojournalist who made his comfortable living shooting assignment work and “stock” for German and British magazines and newspapers (primarily the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and the London Illustrated News.)
Ute Eskildsen and Felix Hoffmann have sifted through his archive and organized his life’s work into nine categories: politics (he began by covering post-WWI battles between Communists, Socialists, and Conservatives in the streets of Berlin); sports (road racing was a passion, with the era’s rage for ever-faster transportation conveyed through distortion of wheels and faces); air travel (he documented the mania for zeppelins in the 1920s) and stunt-flying; portraiture (his subjects included celebrities such as Einstein) and documentary stories of professionals at their jobs—scientists conducting experiments, editors at newspapers and movie studios working at machines); and reports from exotic lands (he visited Paraguay and Bolivia and, like so many other European and American men of his day, could not resist the chance to photograph nude, large-breasted women in Africa.)
In the early 1930s he expanded his repertoire. He did some Bauhaus-style experiments, making cryptic close-ups of ordinary objects, such as the handles of a pair of scissors, and printing crowd scenes at street demonstrations as tone reversals. A section here titled “Inszenierung” (“Production”) features two of Ruge’s photographic comic strips. Both are staged scenarios in the style of a Charlie Chaplin silent film. In one sequence, titled “Eine ‘bierological’ studie’” (“A Beer-ological Study”) two men at a table grow increasingly intoxicated until by the last panel they have fallen asleep atop one another. The series of self-portraits in “Der Mann hinter der Kamera” (“The Man behind the Camera”) parody the clichés (gestural and verbal) that a commercial studio photographer relies on to bend his subjects to his will.
The catalog skips lightly over Ruge’s loathsome behavior during World War II, when he cozied up to the Nazis. Only eight photographs here are dated between 1939-45 and several of those deal with innocuous themes, such as the circus. He was a propagandist for the Wehrmacht in 1940-41 and worked eagerly for French magazines that collaborated with the Nazis, such as Signal. In a creepy photo-essay from 1942 that praises the “chasseurs de nuit,” Ruge photographed a tense group of handsome German fighter pilots, talking on the phone and sitting at their desks as they awaited instructions to take to the air against the Allies.
The handful of examples here from his post-WWII period, pictures of a bombed and impoverished Berlin, are nothing special. For better or worse, he was a German photojournalist of his the mid-20th century who participated fully in the machine-age innovations and the shameful politics of his day.
Many photographers have only a small window in their careers when they shock their rivals and themselves by recording things no one had witnessed before. Ruge was risking his life in 1931 when he wondered what would happen if he took a small camera up in a plane and jumped. Parachuting was barely a decade old then and its safety record was spotty. The expressions on his face and body as he descended register terror and exaltation. He was being a Go-Pro guinea pig and the gamble paid off. The photograph of his mid-air tumble is like nothing else from the time.
The imaginative window closed on him with brutal velocity, if this catalog is a fair representation. That his photographs from 1929-31 seem to be an anomaly shouldn’t be held against him. Most photographers will never be so lucky.
Collector’s POV: A vintage print of Ruge’s famous parachute image recently sold for $65000 at the 2017 JGS collection sale at Phillips. It is the only print by Ruge to be offered at the major auction houses in the past handful of years.