Völkisch, Modern and armed with a Leica


‘It is not the state proper that is the organism but the land in its spiritual bond with the people who draw sustenance from it.’

Johannes Mattern. Geopolitik: Doctrine of National Self-Sufficiency and Empire. The Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore: 1942. p.55.

Fresh from the wash, today. This morning I was in the darkroom making black and white photographs from a set of vintage negatives by the photographer Hans Saebens (1895-1969). The negatives were acquired for the School of Art Collection (along with 75 vintage Saebens prints) in 2014.

Saebens trained as an artist at the Kunsthochschule Bremen, and after the First World War practiced as a graphic artist and landscape painter out of Worpswede. He took up photography in 1930 and along with some commercial work, he mainly produced landscapes and portraits of the area that he had made his home. Saebens struggled initially with mastering the photographic process and was helped immensely in the use of the Leica by the photographer Paul Wolff (1887-1951). Wolff was on a photographic commission in Bremen when he first met Saebens (who was then involved with the Bremen tourist board) and the two hit it off and became friends. Saebens went on to become a doyen of the Leica and regularly contributed images and articles to the Leica journal.

These 'lost' negatives date from the 1930s and 1940s and were originally stored in envelopes marked with typed descriptions of the vocations of the people photographed and with overarching titles such as Volksköpfe or köpfe. These are physiognomic and traditionalist studies of ordinary country folk (seldom named) from the north and west of Germany, 'Niederdeutschland'. They are part of a 'Radical Tradition' which both employed the techniques and aesthetics of Modernism whilst simultaneously suggesting a rejection of the deleterious effects of the 'modern' era. These images I am now printing have, in the main, not been seen since the 1940s and they offer new insights into Saebens the photographer and will be included in my forthcoming curated exhibition 'A Radical Tradition' in 2019.

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