5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 29 July 2014
'History has not been kind to Heinrich Hoffmann.' So writes the modern historian Roger Moorhouse in his introduction to this latest edition of the memoirs of Hitler's personal photographer. 'At best, Hitler's former "court" photographer is viewed as a genial buffoon; a "useful idiot" whose artistic talents were exploited for Hitler's benefit. At worst, he is seen as an active and convinced acolyte; an aider and abettor of the 20th century's most infamous dictator.'
Hoffman was all these things. But he was also something else. As Hitler's personal photographer Hoffmann was one of the most important photographers in the 20th century - arguably the most influential photographer in the history of photography. More influential than Henri Cartier-Bresson, Cecil Beaton, Don McCullin and all the FSA, "Time/Life" and "Picture Post" photographers rolled into one, plus a host of additional photographers too numerous to mention.
Notice I use the word `influential' - not the greatest, though Hitler's personal photographer was good at his job. But Hoffmann did something more. Unlike most photographers who merely record events, he influenced them. Indeed, Hoffmann changed history.
Because of his Nazi connections most people - especially those in the photographic world - underestimate Hoffmann, or dismiss him altogether. He's hardly mentioned in official photographic histories - he's the ultimate embarrassment. No analysis of his work by Susan Sontag, Roland Barthes, John Berger, or other photo gurus. No praise similar to that heaped on photographers who worked for Lenin and Stalin, or other communist regimes. No exhibitions.
Hoffmann's photos are still radio-active decades after they were taken and spark controversy and even hatred. The German filmmaker Wim Wenders once observed, `Never before and in no other country have images and language been abused so unscrupulously as here, never before and nowhere else have they been debased so deeply to transmit lies.' Those words might apply to Hitler's personal photographer, but do they tell the whole story?
Leave aside the fact that Hoffman was a Nazi and morally dubious for a moment ... just consider him photographically. He was - and is - the only photographer in history to work intimately with a major head of state over a long period of time. Hoffmann secured the ultimate journalistic scoop - constant access to Adolf Hitler for 25 years from before he came to power until nearly the end when the dictator committed suicide in 1945.
Someone once said 'Hitler was a gangster, but a gangster with style'. Hoffmann and his team captured that style. In the early 1920s Hitler was hostile to photography. Then he met Hoffmann and changed his mind when he discovered Hoffmann had an interest in art - a passion he shared. This created a bond between them. Inasmuch as Hitler had friends Hoffmann became a friend - a person he could trust. Hoffmann was amiable, easy-going and an entertaining raconteur as these memoirs show. He was fun to have around and mastered the art of discreetly taking natural photos close-up without fuss and could melt into the background when necessary. Hoffmann was therefore in a unique position to capture Hitler on film.
Hoffmann did as much as anyone to create the Hitler image. He helped transform the Nazi leader from a weird-looking outsider - a sartorial wreck - into a superbly attired all-conquering Fuhrer. Hitler, he tells us, was sensitive about his appearance and relied on Hoffmann to photograph him privately in various clothes before wearing them in public. The dictator looked grotesque in lederhosen - fat, flabby and effeminate - leaning against a tree. That picture alone could have destroyed his credibility and his political career. A photo of Hitler sporting an SA hat looked equally comic. Hitler realised how damaging these photos were, forbad publication and never again wore those clothes. He also banned pictures that showed him wearing glasses, not to mention photos with Eva Braun.
The historian Richard Evans says Hoffman allayed 'the Nazi leader's anxiety about being photographed in unflattering situations by capturing his image in the most appealing possible ways. Hoffmann's work ensured Hitler's picture was always all over the media by the late 1920s. His photographs were always the best.'
Ever discreet, Hoffmann published only approved images. But the photographer had a shrewd journalistic sense. He realised his pictures were historically important and was never afraid to take revealing and less flattering images. These he hid in his files realising he could publish them one day and present a more rounded portrait of the Fuhrer.
Hoffmann also influenced Hitler's body language. Hitler was a great actor and realised personality could be expressed by the way you stood, walked, or saluted. It was important to appear dignified and soldierly. Hoffmann took a series of Hitler rehearsing gestures and expressions so Hitler could judge which would be most effective when making a speech. The two worked together creating a powerful image. Most people look their best when young. Hitler improved physically with age. He looked better and more handsome as he got older. By the time he was in his late 40s and early 50s he had perfected an indelible image.
The photographer not only influenced the way Hitler looked, he also affected his health by introducing him to the controversial Dr Morell. He played a role in the leader's love life - such as it was - by introducing Hitler to Eva Braun who worked in his Munich studio. In addition, Hoffmann helped make Hitler rich. He suggested the dictator should collect a royalty each time his likeness was used on a German stamp. And it was Hoffmann who helped select works of art displayed at annual exhibitions at the House of German Art in Munich, something that has enraged art lovers ever since.
But it's Hoffmann's photos that are most important. How many did he take? In these memoirs he says:- `The total number of photographs taken by myself and my assistants in my various branches all over Europe must be in the region of two to two and a half million.'
It's an astonishing number. The only previous head of state who was extensively photographed was the last Tsar, Nicholas II - about 100, 000 photos - mainly family snapshots. Hitler was next, but on a much vaster scale. At the height of his success Hoffman says his photographic activities assumed `almost the form of a miniature industry. One after another I opened subsidiary studios in Berlin, in Vienna, in Frankfurt, in Paris, in The Hague, until finally I had no less than twelve studios and a hundred or more employees dotted all over Europe.' Four of those employees were photographers. The plum jobs - working close-up with Hitler and his henchmen - Hoffmann reserved for himself.
How good a photographer was Hoffmann? The answer - outstanding. He was one of the top photographers in his profession before he met Hitler. Besides being adept at press work and photo journalism he was a skilled portrait photographer. Before WWI he had worked in London with one of the renowned portrait photographers of the day, E.O. Hoppé. He brought a battery of skills to his craft. That's what made him so influential. If he'd produced rubbish Hitler would never have employed him.
In the 1920s and 30s Germany was a world leader in photography. The introduction of the Leica camera in 1925 revolutionised picture taking. This small camera, which used 35mm film, had high-quality fast lenses and enabled photographers to shoot up to 36 pictures rapidly under challenging conditions. Now you could take a camera anywhere and tell a story in pictures. Illustrated magazines sprang in the Weimar republic as photographers published photo essays capturing everyday life and celebrities.
During WWII most Allied photographers used cameras made in Nazi Germany.
Hoffmann was a pioneering photo-journalist and one of its most gifted practitioners. He realised the Leica would enable him to seize a moment and take natural-looking pictures of Hitler on the move. Hoffmann was often onboard Hitler's car, train, or aircraft, literally looking over his master's shoulder. He was with him as he moved amongst crowds, or relaxed at a roadside picnic. Hoffmann was nimble and had a precise sense of timing. His best pictures are full of life and movement. He mastered the art of taking snapshots indoors without flash using available light. This enabled him to take candid pictures without disturbance - pictures of Hitler and Chamberlain negotiating the Munich agreement, or important military conferences.
Unlike Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who keeps photographers at a distance on public occasions and is photographed with telephoto lenses, Hoffmann took his pictures close to Hitler. The result was more intimate. Hitler - one of the great actors of the 20th century and an artist - he spent 18 years painting before he was drawn into politics - learned how to present the best image for the camera.
Pictures were carefully selected for publication and only the most flattering used. But when you look at the totality of Hoffmann's work it's a extraordinary record of Hitler and his court - the view from headquarters - the most comprehensive coverage of any leader at that time. There was nothing comparable on the Allied side. It's more than propaganda. Journalistically Hoffmann did a remarkable job, whatever one may think of the man morally. He and his team photographed Hitler and his henchmen plotting, working and relaxing - their ceremonies and buildings, headquarters, military conquests and triumphal entries into defeated countries - the Nazi world they created - though minus the horrors. The Hoffmann team even took thousands of photos of Hitler in 3D.
Hoffmann was brave as well as enterprising. During his political career there were over 40 attempts to assassinate Hitler. A stray bullet, or well-aimed bomb, might have killed Hoffmann as well as his master. He took risks when Hitler did. It was dangerous working amongst crowds and travelling through war zones. You can sometimes see Hoffmann at work in Nazi newsreels and movies, including "Triumph of the Will". There he is, a small tubby figure raising a Leica to his eye, snapping away as the dictator moves among his troops, acknowledges the crowds and drives through conquered cities. One picture shows Hoffmann photographing Hitler on a balcony in Salzburg during the Anschluss in 1938 - alone with the Führer, using his privileged position to take exclusive close-ups - a hallmark of his work.
It's said that Hitler seldom smiled. This is untrue as Hoffmann's photographs show. Hitler even smiled during his last photo call in 1945 when he met Hitler Youth fighters in the chancellery garden shortly before he committed suicide. It's a reminder that this man who committed monstrous crimes was human. This is what makes Hoffmann's pictures so disturbing. We can see Hitler's charm - his charisma - at work. Look at the smiling, laughing faces as Hitler talks to the crowds, or passes by - the rapturous expressions - the joy of the children as they meet the Fuhrer - the adulation of the troops in the days of victory. They love the man.
Hoffmann's postcards and large prints of Hitler sold in their thousands. In addition he did something rare at that time. Hoffmann published 50 picture books - major photo essays about Hitler and the Nazis - all immaculately printed in high quality gravure. One featured the SA - the brown-shirted storm troopers who helped Hitler to power. Another showed the huge Nazi pavilion at the 1937 Paris exposition. We see intimate photos of Hitler in private - "The Hitler Nobody Knows" - "Hitler Off Duty" - "Hitler in His Mountains." Then there's "Youth Around Hitler" - charming pictures of the Fuhrer meeting adoring young people. Could this man really be evil? We see Hitler celebrating his 50th birthday and all eyes focussed upon him at Nuremberg rallies. Other books show "Hitler in his Homeland" - "Hitler Builds a Greater Germany" and "Hitler in Italy" meeting Mussolini. We see Hitler marching into Austria, the Sudetenland and Bohemia. Hoffmann was with him in Poland at the start of the WW2. And he recorded Hitler's greatest triumph - the conquest of France in 1940 - in "With Hitler in the West."
The books stopped when the victories stopped. But Hoffmann still went on photographing and recorded Hitler as Nazi Germany collapsed. He was in the Wolf's Lair when the bomb exploded in 1944. As the war went on his camera captured an aging Hitler ground down by defeat.
Hoffmann is one of the most intriguing and controversial photographers in history. Because of his close association with Hitler his work presents problems for historians few of whom have got to grips with him, or produced a balanced look at his career. Much is made of his drinking - something he cheerfully admits in these memoirs - and his role of court jester in Hitler's entourage. Little do detractors realise that a master photographer was at work. Few people took Hoffmann seriously. But one person did - the person who mattered - Adolf Hitler.
Like millions of Germans Hoffmann was inspired by Hitler. The Fuhrer provided endless photo opportunities from public ceremonies to invading Russia. He was a dream - or perhaps a better word would be nightmare - subject and Hoffmann responded. `The Third Reich fostered the modern era's first full-blown media culture,' observed Prof Eric Rentschler in his book "The Ministry of Illusion". Hoffmann was part of that culture, but dealt in stills rather than moving images.
Hoffmann was more than a drunken fool. He would never have produced the astonishing amount of high quality work and 50 books if he were constantly drunk and incapable. Once he had a camera in his hand he was intelligent and knew what he was doing. And have no doubts you needed intelligence to operate a Leica. It was never an easy camera to use, any more than a violin is easy to play. It needed a high level of skill to operate, let alone take pictures close to Hitler in public when the eyes of the world were upon you and crowds surging round. A photographer needed steady nerves, a technical mastery and a steely determination to seize the exact moment to take winning and even iconic photos.
Hoffmann may have been less inspired than Cartier-Bresson - few photographers are that good - but he was only a notch or two down - silver rather than gold. Hoffmann was at least as talented as many photojournalists who fled from Hitler's Europe such as Alfred Eisenstaedt, Kurt Hutton and Felix H. Man. He was as good as the photographers employed by America's "Life" magazine, or Britain's "Picture Post". His work appeared in both those magazines as well as - bizarrely - "Homes and Garden" and "Country Life". And his photos were published in thousands of other newspapers and magazines at home and abroad.
How conscious was Hoffmann of what he was doing - recording a monstrous political figure? He was aware of the aesthetics, but not the moral implications of the pictures he was taking. To be fair, few people were aware how appalling the Nazis would become once they achieved power in 1933. Hitler was good to his staff and an exciting person to work for. Something was always happening when he was around. Having invaded Poland in 1939 and started a world war Hitler went on creating ever larger photo opportunities - colossal historic events. And Hoffmann was there to record this man who set these events in motion. Like many people who worked for Hitler he was too busy getting on with his job to sit down quietly assessing the moral impact of what he was doing.
In his book "Goodbye to Berlin" Christopher Isherwood wrote, `I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.' That might apply to Hoffmann. He seldom thought about the moral consequences of working closely with Hitler. His memoirs reveal no soul searching, no worries about how his photos might be interpreted. He seems unaware he was working for an increasingly criminal regime.
Hoffmann claimed he had no interest in politics. This was true in the sense that he avoided political intrigues and was not involved in any of the major political decisions that led to war and turned the world upside down. He kept a certain independence. But his photos had a political impact.
Writing in another context in 1929 the novelist E. M. Forster observed:- `Let us at once dismiss the notion that any fool can use a camera. Photography is great gift, whether or no we rank it as an art.'
And Hoffmann had that gift. He took some of the most important photographs ever taken. Yet he is routinely vilified by people who use his work. In his book "Hitler and Power of Aesthetics" Frederick Spotts wrote:- `The appointment of Hoffmann, an alcoholic and a cretin who knew little more about painting than did the average plumber, had appalled the artistic community.' Hoffmann's influence in the art world may have been baleful, but it's an exaggeration to claim he artistically ignorant. Indeed, Spotts uses a Hoffmann portrait of Hitler on the cover of his book and many of his pictures in the text. They are there as evidence to support the author's other arguments.
In fact Hoffmann devotes a whole chapter in his autobiography to Hitler and the arts. Here he reveals a good general knowledge of the subject. Among the artists he mentions are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Cranach, Watteau and the sculptor Myron. Hoffmann also reveals a liking for modern art and appreciates Picasso, Renoir, Gauguin, Van Gogh and other artists too numerous to mention in this review. And this artistic knowledge fed through into his photographs.
By force of circumstance much of Hoffmann's work was workaday - typical press photos. He had to capture life on the wing. Hoffmann was a spectator - an unobserved observer - watching historic events unfold before him. Unlike a movie director he was unable able to control those events. He had to grab what he could. But there were times when Hoffmann produced iconic images - images that still define the way we regard Hitler.
Some critics refuse to acknowledge Hoffmann's photographic talent and abilities. They deny them altogether. I can think of no other photographer who has attracted such sustained abuse down the years while achieving so much. Hoffmann's photos are more widely published than the work of any other photographer. They have a supreme historic importance few photos can match. They are living documents - poured over by millions of people and eagerly used in newspapers, magazines, books, TV documentaries and movies - long after the demise of the Third Reich.
But they are a tainted legacy. And the man who produced them has suffered as a result.
Along with the filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl, Heinrich Hoffmann displayed a genius for promoting the Hitler image - the Hitler style. But Riefenstahl filmed Hitler on a only a few occasions - a few days in 1933 for her films "Victory of Faith" and "Day of Freedom: Our Armed Forces", a few days for "Triumph of the Will" (1934) and a few days for Olympiad (1936). And that's it. Hoffmann, on the other hand, took hundreds of thousands of photographs of Hitler over 25 years, often at crucial moments in history. Through his catalogues and books, he provides a textbook example of how the continuous bombardment of images can help sustain power.
And, of course, he had the ultimate subject - Adolf Hitler - a man who knew how to play up to the camera.
In her article "Fascinating Fascism" Susan Sontag was so busy slagging off Leni Reifenstahl and a book about Nazi regalia that she never mentioned Hoffman. As for her book "On Photography" - there's no mention of Hoffmann even in passing.
How accurately do Hoffmann's pictures capture Hitler and Nazi Germany? In many ways they don't. They fail to show the evil. Where are the death camps, the Holocaust and ruined cities? But that was never his role. As Hitler's personal photographer - a court photographer - he was there to show the Fuhrer and cronies at work and in private, as well as on public occasions. It's the view from headquarters, not lower down.
Some people claim his photos are just propaganda. And it's true his pictures convey a benign image of the dictator. But how accurately did Mark Shaw depict President Kennedy for "Life" magazine? There we see - apparently - a happy family man. No hint of a foul-mouthed, ruthless politician who betrayed his wife, enjoyed nude bathing with hookers in the White House swimming pool and bedding every woman in sight, including a communist spy. The same was true of Richard Avedon's portraits of Kennedy and his wife. Apparently we're looking at the ultimate happily married couple.
Hoffmann recorded the most sustained and detailed portrait of an evil man in history. In his book "The Art of the Third Reich" Peter Adam found it incredible that a man who had `the face of a psychopath could fascinate so many'. But did Hitler have a `face of a psychopath' - obvious features we can recognise in other criminals? Hoffmann suggests not. Perhaps something is lacking in the photographer until we think of pictures taken by other photographers of evil leaders such as Mao, Lenin, Stalin, Pol Pot, the rulers of North Korea, Bin Laden etc. Evil men can look charming and sometimes are. That's part of the way they deceive ordinary people. Photographs may reveal character, but ultimately they are no more able to take you inside the dark recesses of a person's mind than a painting.
At the time they were taken Hoffmann's photos were the most comprehensive photo essay ever recorded of one human being. They tell us an enormous amount about the world Hitler created and inhabited even if they fail to tell us everything. Which is why historians and journalists keep using them even as they insult the man who took them. Use and abuse seems to be their watchwords. There's an element of hypocrisy here. They use his photos because they're good and historically important. Great photographs, sorry you took them seems to be their attitude.
At the end of the Second World War Hoffman was arrested. Initially he was classified as a major war criminal on a par with the worst offenders. Sanity prevailed. He was hardly Heinrich Himmler. But lesser charges were brought and Hoffmann was tried before a West German court as a Nazi profiteer. One man's profiteering is another man's enterprise. Hoffmann was an astute businessman and became a millionaire. Long before most people he recognised Hitler was the coming man who needed documenting. But the lawyers were having none of that. The crimes of the Nazis were too bad to excuse.
So Hoffmann spent five years in prison and all his property - including his photographs - was confiscated. In those twilight years he was constantly interrogated - even about the atomic bomb about which he knew nothing. As he says he'd never even heard of it until atom bombs were dropped on Japan at the end of the war. In all his time in captivity none of his interrogators seems to have taken an intelligent interest in his photographs except as records of a criminal regime. The kind of questions a photographic historian is interested in were never asked. Hoffmann makes up for some of the deficiencies in his memoirs, though there's a lot more we should like to know.
Once out of prison Hoffmann was poverty stricken. But he never gave up. Although in poor health he set about writing this book in the last years of his life. It was an act of defiance. "Hitler was my Friend" he called it. No excuses, no apologies. This is what he did and why - take it, or leave it. If the Hitler he encountered was more amiable and human than the genocidal murderer of history so be it. The Nazi leader had a split personality. His personality changed depending on the people he was dealing with. To artists and photographers he admired Hitler could appear charming and reasonable. That's the Hitler Hoffmann saw.
His book was translated by Col. R. H. Stevens who wrote the Preface. He was a staff officer on special intelligence duties. If anyone should have had a strong resentment against the Nazis it was Stevens. The Gestapo had arrested him and he spent more than five years in Sachenhausen and Dachau concentration camps. Nonetheless Stevens was eager to meet Hoffmann and spent some weeks in his company. He found the photographer genial and easy to work with. `He is a typical bohemian,' he writes, `grandiloquent in phrase and gesture, generous, unpractical, perhaps not always strictly accurate, but a born raconteur; in many way a child, yet withal a shrewd judge of men...'
Hoffmann told him his memoirs made no claim to be a major contribution to history. They were, he said, `A patchwork of reminiscences and impression; of events in which I took part and of people who played leading roles in them and whom I knew intimately.'
But Hoffmann was good at conveying the atmosphere of Hitler's court. He gives a vivid impression of what it was like to work close to one of the greatest tyrants in history. And Hoffmann knew he was good at his job. No-one could take that away from him. When Hitler's propaganda chief, Dr Goebbels, tried to insist he wear a numbered official photographer's badge Hoffmann refused. "Everybody knows me, with or without number or badge or anything else,' he told him. `I am not Number XYZ - I am Heinrich Hoffmann.' And Heinrich Hoffmann he remained - minus a badge.
When he first published these memoirs in 1955 Hoffmann emblazoned the words "World's most famous photographer" in large letters across the jacket. He was half right. His pictures of Hitler were - and are - published worldwide - more now than ever as we have the Internet. But while Hoffmann was a celebrity in Nazi Germany he was less well-known abroad. He was overshadowed by his subject. A good photographer never gets in the way of the person he is photographing. Hoffmann never did. So it's more true to say he is the world's most famous unknown photographer.
Hoffmann's photos are an astonishing legacy. The Third Reich may have crashed in ruins and its leaders vanished. But Hoffmann's photos - this extraordinary body of creative work - remains. I can think of no major photographer - and have no doubts Hoffmann was a major photographer, one of the most important in history - who had such an extraordinary career. He is one of the few Nazis whose creative work is freely available and used worldwide today. His work still has impact even if its creator is seldom acknowledged.
And new pictures keep emerging from the files. A vast treasure trove of images has never been published - tens of thousands of pictures waiting for a diligent researcher to examine. It's about time they were. In his modern introduction to these memoirs Roger Moorhouse displays a greater understanding of Hoffmann's work and the dilemmas it poses than many critics and takes a more balanced look at his career.
But we need more. The Third Reich may have gone, but Hoffmann's photos ensure Hitler and Nazis are always with us. It's a sinister legacy. Hoffmann's pictures were seized, stolen and scattered after the war. The whole collection needs collating and proper assessment - a catalogue raisonné. It'll take years to produce as Hoffmann was prolific. But let's start. His photos are too important to be treated in a slapdash and casual manner.
In his final words in his memoirs Hoffmann says:- `The man from whose side I scarcely stirred for a quarter of a century lives on in my memory. History, of which I was permitted to perpetuate a few fragments on my films and plates, has marched on ... But later when a few pictures are pulled out, to be shown as documentary evidence of this buried piece of European history to those future generations which were not there to live through it, then among them will be some truly historic photographs, ghostly transfixed fragments of history, perpetuated by a man named Heinrich Hoffmann.'
Time has proved him right. Although most critics and the photographic world refuse to acknowledge him, Hoffmann is the most influential photographer in history. Like it or not Heinrich Hoffmann is a VIP - a Very Important Photographer.