Roger Hicks considers… ‘Do you want to play with me, Mr. Hitler?’ 1940, by Marinus
‘Would any photographic “purist”... say that this photomontage should never have been created?’
Marinus was the nom de plume ( nom d’appareil?) of Danish photographer Jacob Kjeldgaard, 18841964. This image is from the 1 May 1940 front page of Marianne, a French political paper, as reproduced in a book called Hitler Blind, Stalin Lahm ( Hitler Blind, Stalin Lame) published in 2008 by Steidl to accompany an exhibition at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne. A few may still be available new, and the usual second-hand dealers have it.
The photography is unforgettable, not least because it goes to the heart of what photography is for, and what ‘real’ pictures are. The other photographer featured in the book is the Berliner John Heartfield (1891-1968), who changed his name from Helmut Herzfeld as a protest against anti-English sentiment during the Great War.
Both Heartfield and Marinus were masters of photomontage: basically, chopping up pictures and gluing them together. The book’s subtitle is Politische Fotomontage der 1930er Jahre, and politische (political) is important. The text taxes my German to and beyond its limits, but I don’t care. Sometimes I can work out enough to learn more than the picture tells me, but mostly, the photographs are their own language.
At first sight, this is a simple news shot. Except of course that it never happened. Even if it had, it’s too good to be true. Look at their expressions, and the stacks of chips. Marinus leaves us in no doubt as to whom he is backing.
But is it a photograph? If it isn’t a photo, what is it? All right: it’s several photographs. But it’s still photography. It plays on our acceptance of the ‘truth’ of a photograph while deliberately subverting it. Photography is a means of communication in the same way as pen and ink or a word processor: it is not responsible for what the artist does with it.
And whether it is a photograph or not, what does it tell us about motivation? How far can we lie, cheat and steal in the cause of righteousness? Suddenly, a lot depends on our preconceptions: on our definitions of ‘ lie’, ‘cheat’, ‘steal’ and ‘righteousness’, to say nothing of ‘parody’ and ‘satire’. Would any photographic ‘purist’, except a self-proclaimed Nazi of limited intelligence, say that this photomontage should never have been created? Today, the very nature of ‘truth’ is being questioned, subverted and dismissed as ‘fake news’ because it is inconvenient to the arrogant and powerful. As in the 1930s, today’s politics calls for critical thought, heartfelt action, and wise voting.