Saturday, February 24, 2018

Why is Chargesheimer so overlooked?

Chargesheimer, ca. 1948

He clandestinely cut out one of his lungs to avoid having to serve in Hitler's Wehrmacht.  The father, who we know little of, was either a card-carrying Nazi or a Nazi sympathizer, so the young man dumped his given name (Karl-Heinz Hargesheimer), called himself simply Chargesheimer, and left home for good.

By 1942 or 1943 he was studying photography, painting, graphic arts, even set design, at different schools in Cologne, and later in Munich.  Returning to Cologne, he began working the streets, photographing workers in bars, schoolkids kicking a football, lovers in doorways, mothers searching for food, and all the dispossessed and the lost who were trying to regain a foothold in life: it was the end of WW II and Cologne was in ruins.

Chargesheimer, Unter Krahnenbäumen, 1958

Chargesheimer, Im Ruhrgebiet, 1957

Chargesheimer, Kissing Couple, ca. 1950

With his camera it was as if he had uncovered a resilience in his people, and he found a deep joy in documenting it.  This would become the theme of a series of books, reviled at first by the city's elders as 'disrespectful' but later celebrated, that he published in the 1950s: Cologne intime, Unter Krahnenbäumen, Im Ruhrgebiet.  To support himself meanwhile he sold photos to newspapers and ad agencies, took assignments in theater as set designer, and eventually - the curve of his early years is steep - directed productions of Eugene O'Neill, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Max Frisch.

To many people today, Chargesheimer is best remembered for another of his sidelines, portrait photography (didn't he already have enough to do?)   He developed a personal style using low angles, tight close-ups and stark contrast, which had the cumulative effect of transforming his living subjects into icons or masks whose power, sometimes hinted at by just the trace of a smile, was undeniable; by the late 1960s they graced the covers of magazines across Europe.  His portraits of Konrad Adenauer, Romy Schneider, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Louis Armstrong and others remain in the popular mind among his most singular achievements.  Here's one though that will be new to many:

Chargesheimer, Josephine Baker, 1956

He developed another reputation in Cologne as well, this one darker, more destructive: as the irascible rebel, the original bad boy.  With glee he would spit in the face of donors and benefactors as the mood suited him; he loved to shake things up.  His 1956 exposition of portraits of the city's leaders in finance and politics caused an outrage: he purposely neglected to fix the photos and in the course of the show they yellowed and deteriorated.  Another time, at a certain point in the premiere of Luigi Nono's Intolleranza at the Cologne Opera, he suddenly projected giant swastikas and concentration camp pictures onto the backdrop and set off a near riot in the audience.

But in fact, it is his disregard for correctness that leads us to why we're talking about him today.  To back up a bit, as soon as he learned how to take photographs and develop them, the much younger Chargesheimer also began experimenting with breaking the very rules he had learned.  He began making photographs without a camera.  What??  Yes, and he mixed materials of different viscosities with fixer or developer, smeared them on paper or glass, then developed the result.  OMG.  He dripped his chemistry or spun it around or raked it with improvised tools, in a freewheeling manner that owed nothing to anyone.  Stop right here.  Isn't this, in a way, an extension of a very old tradition going back to Talbot in 1835, passing through cliché-verres and glassprints?  Well, you could argue that it is but that's beside the point: he just did what felt natural to him, and he kept pushing it in a direction where one picture led to another and another.  The imagery that emerged was airy, lyrical, full of curves and swirls and streakiness, and it seemed without effort.  It still remains breathtaking.  We could go further: this body of work, made off and on from 1946 to 1950, comprising a few dozen pictures at most, is unique in the history of photography and stands apart from everything else he did before or after.  Let's look at some examples.

Chargesheimer, White, 1948

Chargesheimer, ca. 1948

Chargesheimer, ca. 1948

Chargesheimer, ca. 1948

Chargesheimer, Figurative Composition, 1950

By the end of 1940s the rebirth of German photography was well underway.  Emerging photographers were revisiting the lessons of the Bauhaus, suppressed by Hitler, and studied the teachings of Moholy-Nagy with his doctrine of the primacy of the emulsion ('the essential tool of the photographic process is not the camera, but the photosensitive layer').  Otto Steinert and Heinz Hajek-Halke in 1949 launched a movement that embraced this thinking called Fotoform, which later splintered into groups like Subjective Photography and Concrete Photography (Europeans are good with balkanization), all the while maintaining a nearly absolute commitment to abstract or non-figurative work.  Chargesheimer, keeping to himself, chose his own trajectory but was not immune to the creative currents around him: he participated in the big Photokina show in Cologne in 1950 and again for several years thereafter.  When Steinert invited his young student Pierre Cordier to show what Cordier had dubbed 'chemigrams' at Photokina in 1958, it's safe to assume that Chargesheimer saw them.

While all this was happening, at some point in the mid to late 1950s Chargesheimer's cameraless work changed markedly.  Gone were the bold swoops, the confident strokes, the muscular attitude of the earlier period.  Instead of shouting, they seemed to whisper.  They were small, tentative even.  He gathered this work in a one-off book entitled Lichtgrafik - Monoskripturen, then stopped producing altogether. This image is typical:

Chargesheimer, Lichtgrafik, 1961

To be generous you could call them delicate, and some of you may really like them which is okay, but you don't go to Chargesheimer for delicate and anyway it's not that, it's less.  It's not known what precisely caused this change, whether it was seeing too much Hajek-Halke or whether it was something in his personal life, for he was known to suffer bouts of depression.  Perhaps too, as certain critics have speculated, he could have had a foreboding of his own irrelevance with a younger generation advancing on him.   His street photography changed as well, turner colder, unemotional.  His last book, Köln 5 Uhr 30, with its complete absence of human presence, was received with incomprehension.  For unknown reasons he went to the Berner Oberland in Switzerland and took photographs of basaltic rocks on the Eiger, entranced by their crystalline fractures.  These were the last photographs he made.  On New Year's Eve 1971 he committed suicide.

His grave in the Melaten Cemetery in Cologne was lost for years to overgrowth and neglect and was only rediscovered in the nineties.  Today, a small band of followers gather each May 19, his birthday, to pay tribute.

If you have read this far and want to see more of this essential artist, by all means go the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, holders of the major chunk of his work.  In America, the MoMA, the Getty, the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston, and the Harvard Museums all have bits and pieces.  But beware: whether through laziness, inattention, or confusion, many of Chargesheimer's great nonfigurative pictures of the 1940s, the ones we're featuring here and are excited about, are labeled 'chemigram' - a crime perpetuated unfortunately by dealers, auctioneers, curators and museums on both sides of the Atlantic, who don't know what to do with them.  Of course these pictures are not chemigrams at all, as any chemigramist can see.  Perhaps you have to make a chemigram to know what one is.  Besides, the word 'chemigram' didn't exist back then, nor even the idea, the model, of how to do one, go ask Cordier its inventor.  If you want to get all technical you could call them cliché-verres or glassprints and we'd be fine with that.  Personally I prefer to call them cameraless photographs - or just plain pictures on photo emulsion.  You choose.

In any event send your indignation to the appropriate museum, starting with the Getty, as of this writing.


  1. The Getty is going to catch hell from me, you better believe it !

  2. Hi anonymous, others have tried it but the Getty appears deaf. Could a hashtag movement work? Go for it.

  3. Great write up Doug! I've always had an interest in this fellow. I'll try some form of inquiry to the Getty.

  4. THIS JUST IN. Tom Gitterman's contacts at the Getty say that steps are being taken to correct the online Chargesheimer documentation. Stay tuned.

  5. Wonderful , feeling the energy and motion in his work.

  6. Thanks for the informations. The Ludwig Museum holds indeed the major part of his cameraless works, some 80 pieces. One can take appointment to consult them in the readingroom. The Kölner Stadtmuseum holds an edition of the Monoskripturen, also consultable upon appointment.


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