New Erich Retzlaff donation – another treasure uncovered

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© Estate of Erich Retzlaff

In November 2015, Dr. Anna-Claudia Guimbous, daughter of the photographer Erich Retzlaff (1899-1993), donated to Dr. Christopher Webster van Tonder and the School of Art Collection, over 1000 negatives and around 160 black and white vintage prints that she recently discovered stored securely in her basement. Dr. Guimbous has, along with her sister Bettina Retzlaff-Cumming, already generously donated a large number of vintage photographs by Erich Retzlaff to the School of Art Collection in recent years making our collection of Retzlaff’s work the largest outside of Germany and the second largest in the world. This new and important addition to the Collection includes portraits and landscapes from the 1930s and 1940s, examples of his innovative colour work, and an extensive number of Retzlaff’s post-war architecture, travel and landscape work.

Dr. Christopher Webster van Tonder has been researching the work of Erich Retzlaff for a number of years in particular the work made just prior to and during the Third Reich. It has long been assumed that all of Retzlaff’s pre-war negatives were lost forever after his archive was destroyed during an Allied bombing raid on Berlin in 1944 and all that remained were vintage prints and reproductions in period books. This re-discovery is truly significant and a superb addition to the School of Art Collection. Amongst the negatives are idealised and romantic images of the German Reich and portraits of farmers and workers and Germans in their traditional regional costumes. In addition, the new donation includes Retzlaff’s photographs of ethnic Germans from the Balkans and studies of people from the Caucasus (when both were under German influence and occupation during WW2); a series of pictures of architecture and views of (then Fascist) Rome and Venice in the 1930s/40s; and a colour series of people in traditional costume from the occupied Netherlands.

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© Estate of Erich Retzlaff

Retzlaff’s work was reproduced widely during the Third Reich in books, racial periodicals and popular magazines alike. These images will inform our understanding of how the aesthetics of National Socialist photographic propaganda was part of a formidable all-pervasive vernacular. What’s more, these images challenge the received wisdom that National Socialism lacked, “… the interest in talent of outstanding photographers and editors …”[1] Retzlaff’s work is certainly ideological in this period, but he was also a superb technician and aesthete. This is what makes these photographs so powerful and why they should be studied and understood. We need to know the extent of the impact and effect of this creative photography in its own time, its relationship to other forms of propaganda, and to examine the connection between the wide proliferation of this kind of ideological photography, and the inculcation of a mass understanding of race and its links to ethnic-cleansing.

In 2013/14 Dr. Webster van Tonder curated an exhibition on Erich Retzlaff’s work which travelled to the German Historical Institute, London. He is now planning a new exhibition and book on this ideological photography from the Third Reich (including Retzlaff and a select group of his contemporaries) in conjunction with the Wiener Library, London (the world’s oldest holocaust archive) and the Deutsche Hygiene Museum, Dresden for 2018.

[1] Hardt, Hanno, “Negotiated Images: The Rise of Photojournalism in Weimar Germany,” 76 (from In the Company of Media: Cultural Constructions of Communication 1920s-1930s. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000).

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© Estate of Erich Retzlaff
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© Estate of Erich Retzlaff
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