New York

Rudolf Koppitz

Houk Friedman

Rudolf Koppitz is famous, justifiably so, for his Movement Study, 1925, a photograph depicting three dark-haired women, dressed in black from neck to ankle, who support the naked body of a fourth woman with eyes closed, head thrown back. Though thoroughly artificial, especially in its chiaroscuro, it is never labored: the naked woman stands as effortlessly on her toes as the chorus of mourners, and the bright aura that frames them seems as natural as the dark robes that serve to disembody them.

What appears to be an allegorical tableau depicts, in fact, a group of dancers at the defining moment of a performance. Movement Study was the centerpiece of a triptych in Koppitz’s studio where it was flanked by an equally stylized photograph, Mother and Child, 1925, and In the Bosom of Nature, 1923, a picture of a naked man in a pose resembling that of Rodin’s Thinker, 1880, placed against snow-capped, breast-shaped mountains. To us, these, and similar photographs—for example, Life, 1925, in which once again women dominate, the man in effect making a token if stark appearance in the form of a death’s head—may seem quaint and arty, but these images conjure eternal, existential verities with haunting power.

Koppitz made not only “timeless,” art-inspired photographs that looked back to nineteenth-century German painting and French sculpture, but newsworthy ones more prophetic of the direction photography would take. As a reconnaissance photographer for the Austrian air force in World War I, he produced what are among the first aerial images (all marked by his characteristic atmospheric chiaroscuro), some of them quite unusual, including a 1917 shot of an Italian airplane attacking Koppitz’s own. (Koppitz literally captured the flight of time with his camera. What seems to be the shadow of the Italian airplane is actually a product of the time lapsed between the film’s exposure and the click of the shutter.) His photographs of the earth are framed by the wings of his biplane, and in other pictures the technology of war is also conspicuous: soldiers fire antiaircraft guns or shoot at the enemy from the trenches. From the very beginning of his career, Koppitz was interested in photography’s power to record movement, but only when his camera was forced into action did he abandon old models of art.

Equally important are his numerous self-portraits, particularly those few, circa 1914, that depict him in the act of taking pictures. By inserting himself in the landscape, he calls attention to the photographer’s independence from his subject in the very act of appreciating it. In a number of works dating from 1923, Koppitz’s naked body intrudes on the landscape—an allegorical figure for the outcast who finds solace in nature, in the spirit of German Romanticism. These seem less daring, but in fact by picturing himself Koppitz underlines his desire to escape the strictures of a traditional genre.

Taken as a whole, Koppitz’s oeuvre is paradigmatic of photography’s perennial conflict: Should it model itself on high art or should it explore the world in a way that takes into account the alienating effect of technology? His camera records events—often marked by the trace of the apparatus—yet it also reifies them, turning them into grand symbols the way traditional artdoes. Whether or not Koppitz wanted it both ways remains unclear.

Donald Kuspit