A Study of German Photographs from World War II in relation to pre-war European Visual Culture

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Over the summer I have been quite busy with a new research project! Well, not entirely new. As a University Honors Scholar this year, I am expanding my study of WWII German photography into new dimensions.

In 2004, Thomas Eller published a series of photographs by Willi Rose, a German soldier in a motorcycle brigade station in both western and eastern Europe during the Second World War. Rose was Eller’s great uncle. It was not until 2000 when Eller’s grandmother showed him Rose’s photographs, which captured the expanse of the Soviet Union, his unit, destroyed vehicles, barbed wire, and Soviet prisoners of war.photo1-3

Of the 1.5 million German troops that invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, it is estimated that 100,000 brought cameras with them to the front, a number that grew with the invasion of other territories. Some of these men were members of specialized propaganda units; others were unofficial, many times amateur photographers who took private pictures for their own personal use, just like Willi Rose. Often these photographs did not surface until the later 20th century; some are still hidden away in boxes stored in attics.

Many scholars charge that these German images embody Nazi ideology and are therefore tainted by it. Some even aim for an aesthetic appreciation of the private images, by publishing them in artistic coffee-table book format. Rather than looking at these photographs purely for their aesthetic content or ideological charge, this project aims to situate these images in terms of their continuities (and discontinuities) with pre-1933 German and broader European photographic trends, some of which were already highly racial and ideological in nature. By examining primary sources in the form of photographs, photo albums, advertisements and newspapers, this project will examine these photographic trends; trends that encompass visual content and framing, the ideological representation of racial others in earlier images (particularly those by Colonial powers), and the ways in which war had been represented before and during WWII. Finally, by situating these photographs in the secondary literature, this project will also determine how a study of photographic trends fits into the historiographical debate surrounding the meaning of German photographs from this period, and how they can be used as historical evidence.

The ‘degenerate’ art that Hitler hated

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The use of propaganda and the willingness to re-shape history is hardly unique to the conflict brewing in eastern Ukraine.

In fact, the modern art of propaganda reached new heights, or depths, back in the 1930s by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, when they declared war on modern art itself.

An extraordinary exhibit at the Neue Galerie in New York is drawing huge crowds to see the kind of artwork the Nazis admired – hanging side by side with the kind they despised, what they called “degenerate art.”

Acclaimed historian Simon Schama, author most recently of “The Story of the Jews,” took CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on a tour, and offered a chilling reminder: First they came for the art, and then for everyone else.

Click above to watch.

Plus, with rare footage, Amanpour takes a look at back the 1937 Nazi exhibition of ‘degenerate’ art:

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April news

Boy, has it been a great week!

I have been selected for the University Honors Scholars Program, which will allow me to continue my research over the summer in preparation for my capstone and senior thesis. I have also been selected to participate in a seminar on archival and historical research at the Center for Jewish History in New York City in May. I’m excited to take my research to the next level – I will share some updates about my newest research endeavor soon!

With Undergraduate Research & Artistry Day coming up around the corner, I have printed my poster, begun inviting various people to the event, and preparing my short presentation. I feel much more confident than I did last year, as I now have some more practice presenting my research (especially at NCUR last week). Honestly I am not nervous at all, I am rather excited to present my research again actually. Knowing that people come to your oral presentation or stop by your poster just to hear what you’ve been researching is a definite confidence boost. I know there are also some fantastic projects from various departments I look forward to seeing as well.

Here is the poster I will be presenting at URAD. Its pretty similar to last year’s format, with different information and new images!

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Presentation Day

Today was day one of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research! We started off the day with breakfast and some networking before presentation sessions began at 11 a.m. It was great to see what research is being done at other universities, from research on Charles de Gaulle to curing liver cancer. I am looking forward to seeing what else is in store for tomorrow, especially our Huskie researchers.

My presentation went really well, the classroom was full with people even standing at the back! I had a lot of fun talking about my research, and it was such a confidence boost to see all of those people in the room. This was a really rewarding experience – Sharing my research in front of a group of people made me remember why I want to be a faculty member. 

Here are a few pictures from the day:

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Getting ready to hit the road!

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Presenting my research, “Reexamining German Photography: Official and Unofficial Images from Eastern Europe, 1939-1945.”

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Evan presents his research on curing liver cancer

Time to eat after a long but fun day, until tomorrow! 

 

National Conference on Undergraduate Research

Greetings from the road to Lexington, Kentucky!

I am currently traveling with a group of other students to Lexington for the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) at the University of Kentucky. I will be presenting on the research project you have all heard lots about on this blog, “Reexamining German Photography: Official and Unofficial Images from Eastern Europe (1939-1945).”

I am looking forward to gaining experience in presenting my research, and to hear what other undergrads are up to. This will also be a great opportunity to network and meet some representatives from graduate schools I am currently looking at!

So stage 2 of my research on German photography has wrapped up really well. I have applied to the University Honors Scholars Program to delve into a new project this summer and for my senior thesis. I plan on moving beyond an ideological reading of German photographs by considering them in a broader analytical context – Do they share characteristics with European and American visual and commercial culture at the time? How do they relate to photographic trends of Weimar Germany? Essentially, it is not a brand new project, but I have developed a new angle with which to approach my topic.

Anyway, I will check in again after my presentation – Looking forward to it! A huge thanks to the Office of Student Engagement & Experiential Learning and the University Honors Program at NIU for sponsoring my participation in this conference!

March update

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One of many institutions I have consulted for source material, both primary and secondary. Topographie des Terrors Museum und Bibliothek, Berlin.

Undergraduate Research & Artistry Day (URAD) and the National Council for Undergraduate Research (NCUR) are just around the corner in April! All is on track. Over the past week, I have been busy writing my first draft of my historiography, which will now allow me to connect my primary analysis to the secondary literature. This has led me to contemplate some complex historical and theoretical questions: What do we see when we look at these photographs? Are we seeing a historical reality of the events depicted, or are we viewing the reality visually constructed by the photographer? Or do our personal experiences and backgrounds influence what we see? I intend to address this questions in both this research project and future extensions of this project.

I have put together a skeleton of my URAD poster as well, I just need to plug in my information after I do some more writing. I also have to start putting together my oral presentation for NCUR, which I am a little nervous about because I have not presented at a conference without a poster! But this is something I will develop with the help of my mentor, so I am confident I will have an interesting presentation. I am looking forward to it, this will be an awesome experience in presenting my research!