Dieter Keller – The Eye of War / Das Auge des Krieges

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Review by Gerhard Clausing

Why do some still consider war a useful method of dealing with conflicts? Armed encounters between groups of people, whether within a country or between countries, do not seem like a very sophisticated way of solving problems, or of improving the human condition. Where are the boundaries between “necessities” and atrocities, where is the conscience in moments of “kill or be killed” when facing the identified “evil” opponent in hand-to-hand combat? When you look at it all in hindsight and consider it from a greater distance, the results seem meager compared to the price that has been paid. Direct violence and indirect “collateral damage” actually consist of deaths and injuries, on both sides, that leave traumatic physical and psychological reminders for the generations involved as well as for those that follow.

Dieter Keller was a soldier in the armed services of the German authoritarian regime during World War II. When there is a “leader” whose ego is greater than his intelligence and foresight, and all able-bodied men are drafted into the services, and conscientious objection is not permitted, how does one deal with this overwhelming situation when sent into combat?

Well, Keller had the advantage of a keen sense of what this meant in human cost, as well as the eyes and the exposure to Bauhaus and New Objectivity to present us with a stark and memorable photographic documentation. He took a number of forbidden shots in the Ukraine areas between 1941 and 1942, smuggled the films out, and developed and printed them when the war was over. It may well have been his way of coping with overwhelming situations.

What makes these images especially interesting to us is Keller’s very modern cinematic approach that marks his observations. It is like a stark and unpleasant nightmare of themes that are presented in beautifully composed shots, and we detect a certain repetition: fires, severed body parts of people and animals, forlorn landscapes devoid of life and greater meaning, and a sprinkling of befuddled civilians. It is as if time is standing still, and the photographer is saying, “Here’s the folly of armed conflict and cruelty, made visual and as aesthetically palatable as possible – what’s your reaction?” The image of the young girl with a questioning glance haunts us as part of the challenge presented by Dieter Keller. We find ourselves on the edge of darkness, an effect similar to the dark works of Goya or the anti-war statement of Picasso’s huge painting “Guernica,” which is also a major outcry in the face of the cruelties of war.

The work is beautifully sequenced and printed on matte paper that gives the project a certain timelessness. Several fold-outs make the continuity and repetitiveness more physically obvious to the viewer as well. This photobook leaves its impact on us as the definitive reminder in the form of a fancy and artful album brought home by an artist/soldier without bravado: it allows us glimpses into the grossness of the aftermath of armed conflict, without pomp and glory.

This is the photobook that should be required viewing not only for all politicians, but also in schools, universities, and military academies! All the more important in this age of remote and semi-anonymous warfare via drones and computers, where some of the purposes may be nebulous as well …

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Dieter Keller – The Eye of War / Das Auge des Krieges

Photographer:  Dieter Keller (1909–1985, born and died in Stuttgart, Germany)

Publisher:  Verlag Buchkunst Berlin, Germany; © 2020

Editor:  Dr. Norbert Moos

Essays and Texts:  Adam Broomberg and Xiaufu Wang; Dieter Keller biographical data and essay by Dr. Norbert Moos

Languages:  German, English

Hardcover with linen and tipped-in image, sewn binding; 118 pages, paginated, with 88 monochrome images; 24 x 20 cm (9.75 x 8 inches); printed and bound by Wanderer Druckerei, Germany

Photobook Designers:  Thomas Gust, Ana Druga

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Articles & photographs published on PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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