In 1928, Germaine Krull published Métal, a seminal work in New Vision photography and in the history of the photo book. Comprising 64 photographs that emphasize the geometry of cranes, silos, blast furnaces and industrial structures like the Eiffel Tower, taken from unusual or vertiginous angles, the book was described in Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s Photobook (2004) as “the finest example of a modernist photobook in the dynamic, cinematic mode.” The Jeu de Paume survey, a rare opportunity to see prints from Métal, suggested that Krull was innovative in more ways than one: in her conception of the photo book as a work of art, in her radically modernist approach to photography and in her adoption of that approach in her reportage and advertising work.
Born in 1897 in East Prussia (now Poland), Krull lived an itinerant life, even as a child. She traveled throughout Europe, Russia, Brazil and Southeast Asia, but she settled for a time in Paris. The show focused heavily on her most fertile period in Paris, between 1928 and 1933, when she worked in the textile studio of artist and designer Sonia Delaunay, joined a circle of artists including Jean Cocteau (whose 1929 portrait by Krull is included in the show), Man Ray, André Kertész and others, and did some of her most inventive advertising work and photojournalism. The show opened with a wall of book and magazine covers, providing a quick introduction to the modernist sensibility Krull brought to her commercial work. A 1926 advertising image for fashion designer Paul Poiret seems as much about the interior life of the woman in the photograph as about the couture being marketed. The woman’s pensive, beautiful face is overlaid, through multiple exposure, with three images of the same woman wearing three Poiret designs.
Krull was ahead of her time in the attention she paid to women generally, including women artists (in a close-up portrait of the writer Germaine Beaumont, she crops one eye out of the frame altogether) and working women, the subject of a series published by the weekly picture magazine VU between 1931 and 1932. Her nude studies range from near-abstractions focusing on the cropped, fragmented female form to overtly erotic images (her intimate series “Nudes,” 1924, for example, shows two women, clearly a couple, on a bed).
VU had contacted Krull after the success of Métal, and some 600 of her photographs of flea markets, street fairs, dance halls and bars were published in Paris’s picture magazines during her years living there. The exhibition featured a selection of this work, including a frenetic double exposure of a street fair from 1928.
Krull’s political commitments were as deep as her artistic ones, and in 1940 she went to Brazil and then to Africa to photograph for Free France, the government-in-exile led by Charles de Gaulle. She subsequently made her way to Bangkok, then to India, and ultimately back to Germany, where she died in 1985. There was a smattering of images from those later years on view, but her work from the 1920s and ’30s is the reason Man Ray famously told her he thought the two of them were the greatest photographers of their time. Though she has not gotten the same sort of critical attention as Man Ray or some of her other male peers, like Kertész and László Moholy-Nagy, her approach to the medium, as this show generously illustrated, was highly inventive and radically modern.