New York

Erich Salomon

In the late ’20s and throughout the ’30s Erich Salomon provided a steady stream of pictures for the illustrated magazines that were then gaining a mass audience in Europe and America. Using newly invented miniature cameras such as the Ermanox and the Leica, Salomon specialized in unposed pictures of diplomats, statesmen, and other celebrities caught off guard in informal moments. His best-known photographs come from his constant coverage of the seemingly endless series of diplomatic conferences that preoccupied Europe between the wars; but, as this show demonstrates, he also photographed other stock figures of contemporary publicity—sports champions, movie stars, wealthy tycoons. Through his photographs Salomon helped define and fill the public hunger for tales of power and money that mass magazines soon made a staple. Themes and techniques pioneered by Salomon and his editors have remained standard elements in picture magazines ever since, from the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung of the ’30s to Life and People today.

A sort of Ur-paparazzo, Salomon sometimes went to startling lengths to get his pictures. One photograph in this exhibition shows him being arrested on a fire ladder he had hired in order to climb to a top-floor conference room to shoot in through the windows. But as Salomon and his work became increasingly well-known, such elaborate efforts ceased to be necessary. Dressed in a sober tux and carrying his unobtrusive little camera, and with his law degree and his experience on the Berlin stock exchange, Salomon fit easily into the milieu he depicted.

Today, when politicians and other celebrities exert enormous efforts to shape and control their public images, Salomon’s photographs seem far less surprising than they were in his own time. Pictures of politicians yawning, napping, eating lunch, or chatting have become commonplace in an age of “picture opportunities,” but Salomon’s images have a kind of media innocence about them, a freedom from staging and posing, that was soon to be lost.

This exhibition makes a few weak stabs at presenting Salomon as a photographer concerned with the creation of formally beautiful images, and it’s certainly true that he had a talent for strong, simple compositions. But it was in gaining access to scenes of power that Salomon excelled. Whether covering a lavish weekend at William Randolph Hearst’s castle in Wales or entering the virtually all-male club of international diplomacy, with now-obscure statesmen shuffled in an endless series of groupings, he gives us the point of view of an all-seeing, somewhat indiscreet butler. For the most part the people in these pictures are unfamiliar, and so become simply actors in the particular ambience that Salomon has distilled. All of them, and especially the diplomats, are surrounded by the props and gestures of old-boy power: cigars and brandy, whispered confidences and rhetorical points made.

In the search for his trademark behind-the-scenes images Salomon developed many now-familiar techniques of paparazzo journalism. A six-photograph sequence of Anthony Eden playing tennis, for example, introduces pictorial clues that have come to signify the forbidden photograph, stolen at great effort: the pictures have been shot from a very high angle and with a long telephoto lens, which flattens out the space of the image; detail is blurred by camera shake. But, like most pictures of this sort, this early sequence tells very little. The tennis player, a smudgy silhouette, keeps his back to the camera throughout; only the caption identifies him as Eden.

Surprisingly, many of the prints here reveal that Salomon often retouched his “candid” photographs heavily. Usually this appears to have been done to emphasize an expression, but at times it almost creates an expression on a blank face. Salomon’s apparently unmediated, verité effects in fact required great effort and considerable handwork.

Despite his remarkable facility at gaining access to the rituals of life among the powerful, Salomon’s point of view remains that of the outsider, just as he personally, as a middle-class Jew, must have been an outsider to the social strata he depicted. Salomon was murdered at Auschwitz in 1944. Neither peace conferences nor the efforts of the new media to humanize affairs of state for a mass audience had prevented the rise of the Nazis and the onset of war.

Charles Hagen