New York

Josef Breitenbach

Houk Friedman And Hirschl & Adler Modern

One of the first photographers to add color to black and white photographs, Josef Breitenbach used it to foreground the illusory nature of photography. Through this contradiction he subliminally undermined our preconception of the photograph as a record of reality. In bringing it closer to fantasy—in showing just how much of an emotional hothouse a photograph can be—he unwittingly disillusioned us about it, or, more positively, “enlightened” us about how mechanical and manipulable a medium it is. But his color also has iconographic significance: it is not simply a catchy device, but makes the erotic preoccupation or much of his imagery explicit.

Breitenbach’s often overeager fascination with the eternal feminine is subsumed in the traditional concern of the artist’s relationship to his model. Both the photograph of male sculpture students (shown in black and white) intensely working from a bright, flesh-colored, nude model, and the all-black-and-white photographs of Dr. Riegler (a friend of Breitenbach’s) seated opposite a nude, somewhat indifferent cabaret performer, studying her as though she were an abstraction rather than an erotic reality, suggest that Breitenbach was troubled by the old dilemma: is the photographer an artist or a craftsman/mechanic? By using color in an arty way, and posing nudes as objets d’art, he declared himself the former. But he remained uncertain. His numerous idealizing photographs of artists suggest his desperate identification with them. That is, he wishfully projected his own delusion of artistic grandeur—epitomized in his use of color—onto their staging of themselves.

Perhaps the images still of interest today—images that are more than historical curiosities or testimony to an attitude that now looks sentimental—are those of children, and those Breitenbach made of New York after he left Europe, fleeing Hitler. These “straight” photographs have an air of understated description, a sense of the photograph as instant, no-nonsense understanding. This is especially the case when he contrasts the city’s streets and tall buildings to startling effect. There are other works in which low and high are starkly juxtaposed to convey an incommensurateness that is genuinely cosmopolitan. That is, they project the cosmopolitan attitude Breitenbach was forced to take to survive his exile: the discrepancy between high and low conveys the rift between where he has been and where he is, and its inevitability. (He continued, however, to make works with a cloying, overstaged, surrealist sense of this gap, which are less visually effective and emotionally subtle.) He was a man trapped by history and his own frustration about not exactly being an artist, but he was a masterful image-maker when he looked at his surroundings calmly and carefully, with an unconscious detachment that came from not being a part of them.

Donald Kuspit