Starting in the 1920s, Dr. Paul Wolff and his business partner, Alfred Tritschler, photographed all the significant events and developments of their times: the construction of the autobahns, steamship travel, Zeppelin flights. In 1934 they founded the company Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler, a photo atelier working on a diversity of assignments. They were considered pioneers of the Leica. The meticulous research in preparation of an exhibition and photo book was carried out by the author, curator and Leica expert Hans-Michael Koetzle. The project marks the inauguration of the new Ernst Leitz Museum in Wetzlar. We spoke with Mr. Koetzle.
In your opinion, which were the main reasons for Paul Wolff’s enormous success?
Wolff established himself as a picture-taking author early on, linking photography to his name and his face, and vice-versa. Thus he quickly became an authority in the field. He became a “star” in his own time; even though he didn’t really dare expand his aesthetic cosmos into the experimental field, his work was considered exemplary for a long time, and was adopted by a whole army of international, Leica enthusiasts.
Even though the two photographers were extremely successful and productive, it has taken a long time for their oeuvre to be dealt with critically and in depth. What do you believe is the reason for this?
There are a number of reasons for this: Wolff is difficult to categorise; he doesn’t fit into any specific box. An autodidact and photographic amateur, he became one of the most successful professionals in the late twenties and the thirties. In addition, there’s the sheer mass of his work: Wolff covered every possible genre of photography. Aesthetically-speaking, he moved within the terrain of an artistic photography that was gradually fading away, as well as the area of New Vision; he photographed in the spirit of a New Objectivity, only to distance himself from it a short while later. In summary, Wolff’s creative work represents a great paradox. It was precisely the challenge represented by this ambivalence that we decided to take on.
What did you have to start with?
Wolff’s archives were a victim of the aerial bombing of Frankfurt in March, 1944. Even so, his 35mm negatives were stored elsewhere. In addition, prints held at agencies such as Schostal and Ullstein did survive the war. On top of that, there was material in company archives, privately owned documents, and public collections; without forgetting the unpublished autobiography, items in the press from those years, his books and a series of letters spread all over the place. It represented an enormous mosaic with – I admit – empty spots. Even so, the years of research do present a clear picture.
What role did the Leica archives play in processing Wolff’s oeuvre?
As is known, the company archives that had been transferred to Gießen were destroyed by the bombing in December 1944. Even so, a part of the library, as well as the delivery books, could be saved. From these we understand that Wolff received not one, but two Leica I type cameras in 1926. Some of Oskar Barnack’s writings have also been preserved. These are just a few pointers, but of essential importance for the overall picture.
What role did Alfred Tritschler play for the company Dr. Paul Wolff & Tritschler?
In contrast to Wolff, Alfred Tritschler received a solid training at the Photography School in Munich. He was younger, probably more open-minded in technical questions, and a brilliant photographer. The really lively pictures were his, such as those of the Zeppelin in flight; and the ski and water sport photos were linked to his name. With regard to the company that Wolff established, however, Tritschler always played second fiddle. Through our research and by correctly attributing his work, his contribution to the Wolff and Tritschler “brand” has become evident for the first time.
Photographs from the National Socialist era still require a clarifying balance. As a curator, how does one manage to present the context surrounding someone’s life work?
Of course, it needs clarification. It’s a complex subject; the usage of their photography by the national socialists has not yet been explored in depth, which is why we don’t go into it extensively. Even so, we do ask questions, and try to answer them from Wolff and Tritschler’s perspective. In summary, both of their life works have their contradictions. With around 400 items – including vintage prints, documents, newspapers and books never shown till now – the richly orchestrated exhibition saw this as a challenging opportunity: the company Dr Paul Wolff & Tritschler as a »phenomenon« embedded in German history around 1930.
In your opinion, what did Wolff contribute to the history of photography in Germany?
It is hard to overemphasize the importance of his influence on 35mm photography in the thirties and forties. His imagery, modern in its approach, and also technically perfect, has influenced a number of generations of ambitious amateurs. As prominent as he was during his lifetime, as quickly he was forgotten after his early death.
Dr. Paul Wolff. Born in Mulhouse on 19 February 1887, Paul Wolff studied medicine up until 1913 (graduating in 1914). After the First World War he worked in film and as a photographer, met Oskar Barnack in 1921, and acquired his first two Leicas in 1926. His standard work Meine Erfahrungen mit der Leica (My Experience with the Leica) was published in 1932. In 1934 he co-founded a business with Alfred Tritschler, who had worked for him since 1927.
Alfred Tritschler. Born on 12 June, 1905, Alfred Tritschler trained in photography in his town of birth, Offenburg (Baden), then studied Photo Technology in Munich as of 1924. In 1927 he applied for a job with Paul Wolff in Frankfurt. Later he became part owner, and after Wolff’s death on 10 April, 1951, be continued to run the company on his own. On New Year’s Eve 1970, Tritschler passed away. The company had already been taken over by his nephew in 1963.
The exhibition runs from June 28, 2019 to January 26, 2020, at the Ernst Leitz Museum, Wetzlar.
The comprehensive photo book (464 pages, around 1000 pictures, 24 x 29 cm) has been published by Kehrer Verlag and includes texts by Sabine Hock, Randy Kaufman, Hans-Michael Koetzle, Kristina Lemke, Günter Osterloh, Tobias Picard, Gerald Piffl, Shun Uchibayashi and Thomas Wiegand.
A portfolio dedicated to Paul Wolff’s work appeared in LFI 5.2019.
One thing Wolff failed to do was document the slow descent of Germany into a murderous regime resulting in the death of millions of people. He was a commercial opportunist and became very successful under the Nazi regime even though he professed never to have been a supporter. His book Arbeit was published as a propoganda vehicle by Volk and Reich the Nazi publishing house and his agency was quite happy to supply images to many internationally focused Nazi propaganda publications most notably around the Berlin Olympics – the cynical attempt by Hitler to normalise National Socialism and hide the regimes growing stranglehold on every aspect of German life. My anxiety about repositioning Wolff as a Leica photographer neglects the facts which are that the majority of his work was produced under the Nazi’s ( most of his photobooks were published between 1934 and 1945) and his images were depicted predominantly aryan fantasies of the wealthy and the hard labour of German workers but never the slave labour of the captors. Wolff worked for IG Farben and was quite happy to take the Nazi Reichmark at every available opportunity. Post war he repositioned himself as a master of colour photographer but if you look closely you will see even in the publication of his colour photobook later editions no longer include a German soldier in all his glory. Wolff was the ultimate fellow traveller. I will be very interested to see how the new book deals with the hypocrisy of the man and his legacy as the greatest documentarian of the rise of German self confidence and wealth in the 1930’s culminating in the death of 75 million people after 6 years of monstrous blood shed. The fact that he used a Leica means nothing. In his hands it was the tool of a visual collaborator and apologist. He may not have been a party member, but he became very successful like many others by remaining silent on what really was happening in Germany at the time. If there are photographs that prove otherwise I would be very interested in seeing them.
Just wanted to add one more comment in relation to the text from the above interview which reads…
“Photographs from the National Socialist era still require a clarifying balance. As a curator, how does one manage to present the context surrounding someone’s life work?
Of course, it needs clarification. It’s a complex subject; the usage of their photography by the national socialists has not yet been explored in depth, which is why we don’t go into it extensively. Even so, we do ask questions, and try to answer them from Wolff and Tritschler’s perspective.
I think there has been every opportunity for the use of Wolff’s work by the Nazis. There are endless credits in the back of Nazi propaganda books with Wolff’s name proudly displayed. Wolf chose to stay in Germany and profit from the times. His book on the Winter Olympics shows everyone having such a great time in the snow when shortly after this the last Jews were evicted from Garmisch. It’s everything that is missing from Wolff’s back catalogue which makes him interesting not his rather pedestrian use of the Leica. It’s everything that is shown in his books ( the Aryan fantasy of his book Sonne Uber Strand ), the glorification of the German worker preparing for war in his book Arbeit and cynical reselling of his back catalogue for the book on the American zone makes me question whether there is a danger of repositioning this man in any other form than Nazi fellow traveller. As a working photographer of 25 years I understand one has to make a living, but I am also not sure I would have chosen to work so closely with the Nazis. More research into this certainly does need to be done. All this said I am looking forward to reading the essays by the writers in the book and to see how Manfred Heiting’s book with Steidl also looks at Wolff.
Leica Camera Blog Admin Team
Thank you for your comment. The relationship between Paul Wolff and national socialism is explored in the exhibition as well as in the book edited by Kehrer, particularly in the essay from Kristina Lemke entitled “In Line with the Times? Dr. Paul Wolff during National Socialism”. Best regards from Wetzlar.