Translated by Elisabeth Lauffer


The twentieth century has often been termed the century of images in a nod to the central role film and photography came to play as forms of mass media. Around 1930, novel designs for the visualization of news items were established, and with them new ways to connect images and text. The significance of these innovations extended far beyond photo-reportage. News coverage, which had long been text-heavy in daily news publications, underwent a sudden and radical expansion: photography was no longer employed as an illustrative accompaniment to the text, but as a key narrative tool. The analysis of photo-reportage in the Weimar Republic provides a close-up account of this unprecedented interconnection between image and text, and how it evolved in practice.

During the Weimar Republic, the illustrated press was the central form of visual mass media, aside from film, with enormous reach, particularly in urban populations. The 1920s saw exponential growth in the circulation of illustrated newspapers. In 1929, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, the leading publication of the day, had a weekly circulation of over 1.9 million copies, breaking international records.1 As part of this explosion in circulation numbers between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s, the relationship between text and image in German photojournalism underwent a profound, far-reaching transformation. Up until this time, the illustrated mass media had favoured the reproduction of single photos, but during this brief period the photo-essay rose to prominence. Photographs and copy were integrated into a new, complex narrative unity: photo-reportage. Around 1930, this innovative genre blending text and image was exceedingly popular in Germany. After 1933, it would also spread to the English-speaking world.2 The roots of this narrative form of photojournalism extend back to the turn of the century. Starting in the mid-1920s, however, photo-reportage became almost ubiquitous as the new, modern, meticulously designed graphic media format in the German illustrated press. This upheaval in the media and the emergence of new visual narrative forms were also reflected in the public image of press photographers. Over the course of the 1920s, a select group of photojournalists managed to shed their role as anonymous shift workers in the media industry and step more confidently into the public light. This did not mean, however, that many were free to determine how their photos were edited in the newspapers.

In late 1920, the Frankfurt weekly Das illustrierte Blatt became the first newspaper ever to feature on its front page an image of a press photographer at work (Fig. 1).3 The photographer had positioned himself with his camera on the roof of a Berlin streetcar, capturing the scene below from his elevated vantage point. The photograph is unusual, because until that point, newspaper photographers had rarely been shown in large-format pictures; when the first photojournalists entered the public arena in the 1890s, it was the photographs they had taken rather than those they appeared in that caused a stir. Until well into the 1920s (and in some instances, far longer), press photographers occupied the lowest social rung of the media industry. Few were regularly employed; their images were often printed anonymously; their professional reputation was humble. In the accompanying text inside Das illustrierte Blatt, the protagonist is introduced in a decidedly pre-war style, namely as ‘illustrations photographer’, and not as ‘press photographer’ or ‘photojournalist’. The modern-day news photographer, the article stresses, is forever on the move, in order to catch images of breaking events. It does not yet mention, however, that in addition to individual pictures used primarily to illustrate written news pieces, the photographer also produces photo series, essays or even reportages.

Figure 1 

‘Der Illustrations-Photograph’ [The Illustration Photographer], Das Illustrierte Blatt 53 (28 December 1920), front cover, photographer unknown.

Around 1920, the image of the press photographer was not much different than it had been before the war. Within ten years, this image would change fundamentally. By 1930, a few individual press photographers had attained star status, their names appearing on prominent display alongside those of the authors. The best-known among them were now no longer limited to delivering single images for solely illustrative use; instead, they had also begun submitting photo series that were assembled into photo-essays, a process demanding considerable efforts in graphic design. Nevertheless, this remarkable symbolic elevation of a select cadre of photographers did not translate into a corresponding growth in editorial autonomy. Within the complex, stratified production process of photojournalism, the role of the photographer remained relatively humble. Understanding the photojournalistic development toward photo-reportage cannot be accomplished by studying individual photographers and their work alone. Instead, the media system of the illustrated press must be examined in its entirety.

Let us begin with a short summary of the defining factors behind the development of modern photo-reportage. First, the number of photo series grew markedly, while that of individual photographs diminished. These photo series followed increasingly complex narrative structures, showing a close coupling of images and text. Photo-reportage also borrowed several narrative elements from film (e.g., close-ups, zooms, fade-ins and fade-outs etc.). Moreover, the symbolic role of a few individual photographers was clearly elevated: photographers such as Wolfgang Weber, Felix H. Man, Martin Munkácsi and others were established as star photographers by the major media houses. Furthermore, the development of photo-reportage was the result of a complex team effort, the collaboration of numerous specialists, including photographers, authors, executive and photo editors, and graphic designers. Finally, around 1930, innovative German photo agencies such as Dephot, Weltrundschau and Mauritius began to supply the press not only with isolated photographs, but also with entire photo-reportages. The reportages provided flexible narrative models that editors could rearrange and that could otherwise be reused over time and/or regionally.

The boom in German photo-reportage, which began between 1927 and 1929 and reached its height around 1930, ended abruptly in 1933 with the Nazi accession to power. While photo-reportages continued to appear in newspapers, this watershed had profound consequences for photojournalism. Many photographers, journalists, photo editors and newspaper publishers of Jewish origin were forced into exile after 1933. The emigrants’ background in journalism was welcomed and advanced, particularly in Great Britain and the United States. This intellectual and cultural transfer from German photojournalism, as well as the specific form of photo-reportage developed in the illustrated mass press of Weimar Germany, was critical in providing the template for the launch of the English publication Picture Post (1938) and the American magazine LIFE (1936).4 Beyond individual actors, various groups and institutions were also active in this transfer, such as the photo agency Black Star, founded in New York by German emigrants in 1936, which played a prominent role in promoting and developing modern American photo-reportage from the 1930s onward.5 If for no other reason than this, it is worthwhile to study more closely the development of modern photo-reportage in the Weimar Republic, which gained broad international currency.

The following article focuses on the historical development of modern photo-reportage in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s. In recent years, historical research has increasingly targeted the development of photojournalism and analysed the rapid rise of photo-reportage in the Weimar Republic.6 This research has led to new questions about how the swift emergence of this new form of media came about, and what consequences it had on the development of photojournalism. To answer these questions, research into the work of individual photographers does not suffice. The research focus on vintage prints − that is, the raw material of newspaper photography − is also too limited in its approach. While previous research into the history of photojournalism has frequently drawn upon the works of individual photographers, based on prints from their estate or other photography collections, this article will take a different approach, both in source material and methodology. In order to analyse the emergence of photo-reportage as a new media format, the systematic analysis of printed newspapers, that is, photographs and their contexts (the Medienensemble), is crucial. A newspaper’s layout, in which photos and text are graphically integrated − and not a haphazard collection of individual press photos − provides an important platform for proper analysis of developments in graphic composition, changes in the connections between text and image, the sequencing of images and the symbolic presence of the authors of both photographs and text. This study, therefore, examines the complete runs of important national German illustrated weeklies from 1918 to 1933 (e.g., Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, Die Woche, Münchner Illustrierte Presse, Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, Illustrierte Beobachter). Also included in the evaluation are selected regional illustrated papers that figured prominently in the development of photojournalism (e.g., Kölnische Illustrierte, Hackebeils I.Z./Große Berliner Illustrierte, the Wochenschau from Essen, and the Frankfurt-based Das illustrierte Blatt).7 This broad basis of materials, along with a comparative media analysis, enables new conclusions to be drawn about the historical development of photo-reportage in the Weimar Republic. In order to make the printed photo-reportages historically ‘readable’, further background information has been incorporated into the study of this photojournalistic production context: references to economic trends in the media and developments in newspapers’ circulation and socio-political orientation. Biographical information regarding the role of photographers, publishers, newspaper editors and photo editors has also been included in the form of reflections, diaries and letters. These provide important information for differentiating the various roles in the work processes of photojournalism.

The following study will broaden the parameters for examining the histories of photography and media in the Weimar Republic. The emergence of modern photo-reportage was not, as is often argued, the achievement of individual photographers alone; instead, it was largely the result of closely connected media-related and social developments, commercial strategies and aesthetic decisions that went far beyond the agency of individuals.

The Media History of Photojournalism: A New Line of Questioning

The photography of the Weimar Republic has long been the focus of international research. Avant-garde movements such as the New Vision (Neues Sehen) and New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) have garnered particular interest. The years preceding 1933, however, also represent the advent of anti-modernism. In early 1933, the National Socialists’ rise to power in Berlin heralded a significant socio-political fissure. Photography was not spared the impact of this shift, certain continuities notwithstanding. The curious ambivalence between radical modernism and radical anti-modernism in the Weimar Republic has greatly informed the study of photography.8

Despite the abundant international attention paid to German photography of the 1920s and early 1930s, several areas that were critical to the development of the medium during this time remain unexplored. This includes several aspects of photojournalism that have only recently become the focus of research.9 While early studies of the history of photojournalism largely focused on individuals (typically photographers) as brilliant artists or stars, more recent trends have emphasized the institutional production of photojournalistic work, with its inherent division of labour.10 Analysis in recent years has focused on printed media (namely newspapers, as opposed to isolated images).11 On the one hand, this shift in perspective has allowed photojournalistic practice to be viewed as the collective activity of various specialists, all of whom were active to varying degrees within a commercial context. On the other hand, long-overlooked parties − from journalists and photo editors to photography agencies and their staff − benefit from the new-found exposure this altered analytic lens provides.12 More recently, the research focus has shifted to new aspects, such as the connection between image and text in newspapers and photographic books,13 the role of agents in the development of photo-reportage,14 or the function of picture editors.15

The Expansion of Visual Media During and After the First World War

The analysis presented here also demonstrates that without a historical review of the First World War, the development of photojournalism in the Weimar Republic would remain opaque. Thus, the research conducted here does not begin in 1918, as is customary in studies of the Weimar Republic; instead, it extends further back into the war years. At the close of the First World War in late 1918, a perfunctory evaluation would suggest that German photojournalism simply drew upon the fashions of the pre-war years. Instead, the years of mobilizing photography in service of war propaganda had fundamentally altered the parameters for photographic illustrated newspapers, as well as the work performed by press photographers. For instance, the war largely contributed to eliminating newspaper sketches, hand-drawn representations of current events that were considered an authentic medium of visual news reporting into the early twentieth century. This shift occurred in many countries at different paces.16 At the outset of the war, press sketches still played a certain role as a visual news medium alongside the advance of photography. By the end of the war, however, photography had nearly prevailed outright as the modern medium for visual news reporting. During the war, the media industry’s handling of press photographs − the logistics of images − was also professionalized, and its pace increased despite the well-oiled censoring apparatus that had had to be navigated.

Changes also occurred in the photographers’ technical equipment. During the war, the spread of new, light and fast cameras used by a rapidly growing number of amateur photographers increased at a remarkable tempo. Starting in the mid-1920s, these developments also became evident in press photography. Certain photographers began to rely on smaller, more mobile cameras, such as the Leica.17 Finally, to cite a further example, economic realities in the press had shifted fundamentally during the war. German war propaganda, which had been extensively cultivated and centralized since 1917, had led not only to economic consolidation processes in the film branch, but in illustrated print media as well. The leading film production company in Weimar Germany, Universum Film AG (UFA), was founded in 1917 − that is, still during the war − in response to demand for German war propaganda films. A lesser-known detail, however, is that the propaganda war also fostered the emergence of hegemonic corporations in the press sector, in particular the illustrated press.18 The leading German illustrated weekly, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, was able to markedly improve its dominant position during the war, thanks to close cooperation between its publisher, Ullstein Verlag, and the military leadership. Its circulation climbed from 500,000 copies per week in 1910 to over one million by 1915, finally reaching its peak with over 1.9 million copies per week in 1929–1930.19 Thus, the war did not represent a hindrance to the economic development of the major illustrated papers that supported the state; instead, the war was a sort of catalyst for this form of visual mass media.

The dynamic development of German photojournalism in the Weimar Republic is thus largely based on changes that had been introduced during the war. Too little attention has been paid to this fact, probably because the illustrated newspapers incorporating photographs in the years directly following the war (from 1918 until approximately 1925–6) were utterly conventional in their graphic composition, and at first glance, they appear to represent a seamless transition from the years before 1914. There was yet little to suggest the powerful wave of innovation that would characterize the press around 1930. This delay was due primarily to challenging post-war political and economic conditions. Factors hampering the development of the press after 1918 included a civil-war-like atmosphere between 1918 and 1919 and the devastating economic crisis that could be felt from the end of the war through the early to mid-1920s, especially in large cities. This crisis led to paper shortages, among other scarcities. A further result was the hyperinflation of the early 1920s, which the government was unable to control until 1924.

With the gradual economic and political normalization starting in 1924–5, an economic recovery began that was also reflected in the illustrated press. From the mid-1920s onward, the rapid growth in circulation of illustrated media promised strong sales for publishers. Major media groups, such as Ullstein Verlag in Berlin, as well as smaller regional papers, therefore, began establishing a host of new illustrated newspapers and magazines. In some cases, these new publications would represent competition for the older leading illustrated weeklies, especially the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, but also Die Woche.20 The most important newcomers included the Münchner Illustrierte Presse (from 1923) and the Kölnische Illustrierte (from 1926), as well as party-affiliated publications emerging in the mid-1920s, such as the Communist Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (from 1925) and the National Socialist Illustrierte Beobachter (from 1926). The list also included established regional illustrated papers that had been largely modernized starting in the mid-1920s, such as the Frankfurt-based weekly Das illustrierte Blatt (from 1913), Hackebeils I.Z./Große Berliner Illustrierte (from 1918), the Essen-based Wochenschau (from 1914) or the Hamburger Illustrierte Zeitung (from 1918).21 Finally, the economic upturn also led to the establishment of new, photo-illustrated general interest magazines, such as UHU (from 1924), Der Querschnitt (from 1925, published by Ullstein), Scherl’s Magazin (from 1924) or Tempo (from 1927).22 In the late 1920s, daily newspapers also began to print more photos.

Modern photo-reportage emerged in the midst of this upheaval. Its development is closely tied to the economic changes shaping the media landscape of the illustrated newspaper as well as to the competitive atmosphere surrounding ‘old’ and ‘newly founded’ media outlined above. As we will see, significant impulses toward innovative media formats like photo-reportage did not originate in the major, established media, but arose in smaller and newly established publications. The graphic and photographic innovations in photojournalism were very closely tied to economic development. The emergence of modern photo-reportage in the late 1920s falls within a phase of economic media expansion as well as strengthened commercial competition in the illustrated press sector. In order to gain public prominence and increase circulation, certain media houses decided to invest in the development and improvement of new media formats. The triumph of photo-reportage was thus ultimately based on economic considerations. In the years of aesthetic awakening around 1930, photo-reportage was not alone in experiencing a boom. Other innovative media formats such as political photo-montage were developed and expanded concurrently.23 This phase in creative innovation began around 1927–8 and reached its peak in 1930. It lost momentum in the early 1930s in the face of the new economic crisis that opened that decade. A new innovative push in illustrated mass media began again after 1933. At that point the driving force was no longer economic or ideological competition, but primarily the political incentives of the new Nazi authorities.

Bourgeois and Leftist Models in Photojournalism

The model of photo-reportage was not altogether new in the 1920s. Long before the first intricately constructed photo-reportages were printed in German newspapers in the late 1920s, the format of ‘narrative pictures’ was well known. Even before the turn of the century, simply constructed prototypes of photo-reportage were published.24 Additionally, before the late 1920s, the heyday of modern photo-reportage, German illustrated papers regularly published topical pieces with simple graphics; a tableau of several photos, frequently of mixed provenance, was used to illustrate a text. The photos did not, however, constitute a standalone narrative. Modern photo-reportage thus did not simply appear without warning in the 1920s, but emerged following a protracted course of development. The first critical steps toward photo-reportage were not made, as mentioned earlier, by the major, market-dominating illustrated papers; instead, it was small and mid-sized newspapers leading the charge, in particular the Frankfurt-based Das illustrierte Blatt, as well as the Kölnische Illustrierte or the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. Starting around 1927, these publications began to experiment with graphic innovations and to combine photos creatively to tell a story.

Contrary to the common depiction in the secondary literature,25 it was not bourgeois media alone that drove this movement toward photo-reportage.26 Crucial impetus in this direction came almost concurrently from leftist illustrated papers as well. Photo-reportage thus surfaced at an especially tense societal moment in Weimar Germany, a period defined by major ideological competition between the leftist and the bourgeois press. In creative terms, the leftist illustrated press − in particular the Communist Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (AIZ) − was initially avant-garde.27 As early as 1926 and 1927, the publication began connecting individual photographs in full-page or, increasingly, double-page spreads (Figs. 2 and 3). These pictorial reports drastically reduced the amount of text, because they were consciously intended for a leftist audience that was often largely unpractised in reading. The rigid column pattern was thus dismantled and the images tightly enmeshed graphically. For instance, cut-out figures in the foreground, which might serve to invite identification, ushered readers into the tableau behind. The sequence of pictures was often characterized by alternating long shots and close-ups. In this way, too, the reader was ‘drawn into’ the photo-essay. By 1928, and thus earlier than in the bourgeois press, the term ‘reportage’ was used in the AIZ in connection to a photo-story.28

Figure 2 

‘Arbeitersport’ [Workers’ Sports], Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung 19 (1929) 8–9, photographers unknown.

Figure 3 

‘So ist Paris’ [Such is Paris], Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung 21 (1929) 8–9, photographers unknown.

In the late 1920s, photographers in the bourgeois press experienced a gradual rise to stardom. One of the first steps in this process was the pronounced symbolic elevation of certain photographers, whose names were increasingly included in the by-line of the articles rather than in photo captions.29 This system of star photographers was most notably established and expanded in the leading Ullstein outlets and in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung. In essence, by means of extensive media attention, certain photo reporters were lifted out of the masses of underlings working in photography. They were given space and impressive compensation. At Ullstein, a star photographer would be paid no less than 500 Reichsmarks for the first printing of a two-page reportage.30 Elaborate travel reportages, which often appeared in several instalments and would be rerun in other newspapers, could earn the photographer several thousand Reichsmarks including expenses. Prominent photographers could produce far more photo-reportages than the lesser-known competition. In 1930, Wolfgang Weber, one of the best paid and most published photographers from the interwar period, was averaging twenty reportages per year.31 In return, of course, newspapers profited greatly from popular star photographers such as Martin Munkácsi, Umbo, Wolfgang Weber, Walter Bosshard, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Felix H. Man, Harald Lechenperg and others. After all, the stars and their sensational photos and photo-reports (invariably advertised as such) were the papers’ central selling point.

In contrast to the bourgeois press, this system featuring star reporters did not exist in the leftist press. Most photographers active in the proletarian press and ideologically aligned with the labour movement could barely live from the sale of their photos, if at all. Remuneration for photos in the workers’ press was significantly lower than in the bourgeois press. Proletarian photographer Richard Peter, for instance, reported that he received five Reichsmarks in 1930 for the printing of a single photo in the AIZ, and fifty for a photo-reportage.32 Unlike in the bourgeois press, higher pay for well-known photographers was not common practice. Photographers could not improve their public image through photographs published in the AIZ. The vast majority of photo-reportages printed there did not acknowledge contributors (at most, the pieces were initialled), whether in order to protect sources or to underscore collectivism as a gesture of political activism.

In the bourgeois press, the higher values placed on photographers’ names first emerged with longer travel articles illustrated with photos. The images’ origins were prominently featured, particularly in instances in which both copy and photos were produced by well-known travel journalists.33 In this way, not only was photographic authorship more strongly emphasized than ever before, but a connection between the perspective of author and photographer was established. This − in part symbolic − interconnection of authorship in the area of text and image would prove ground-breaking for modern photo-reportage. Seminal German reportages from around 1930, in which the photographer was also responsible for the copy, highlight this interconnection of textual and visual authorship. The German photographer Wolfgang Weber was most successful in systematically advancing this authorial symbiosis. From late 1929 onward, the by-lines for many of his photo-reportages − for which he often wrote the copy − were no longer simply typed letters; instead, his own signature was printed visibly beneath the headline (Fig. 4).34 This example in particular clearly demonstrates the revaluation of the photographer operating simultaneously as a writing journalist and photo supplier.

Figure 4 

‘Gallspach’, photo-reportage by Wolfgang Weber about an area in Upper Austria transformed into a ‘Mecca of the Sick’ by faith healer Valentin Zeileis, Münchner Illustrierte Presse 8 (1930) 236–7.

The Development of Modern Photo-Reportage

In the array of bourgeois illustrated newspapers, important first steps toward photo-reportage were to be found in the small weekly Das Illustrierte Blatt, based in Frankfurt. From the mid-1920s, this illustrated paper was already regularly publishing precursors to photo-reportage. Initially, this was no more than simply constructed, topically-focused double-page spreads. The paper launched a series of graphic innovations from 1927–8 onward. The page layout became more dynamic, as rectangular photos were combined with round images which, borrowing the zoom effect from film, provided visual details.35 Also included regularly were photo series arranged in rows or tableaux, cut-out figures and other pictorial effects. Thus, graphically speaking, the transition from simple topical spreads to more complexly constructed photo-reportages was also a fluid one. Modern reportage was not characterized by the new graphic connections between text and photo series alone; innovations were made with regard to content as well. Photo-reportages often drew upon everyday topics. Typical photo-reportages might depict scenes taking place in front of a shop window, daily occurrences at a dentist’s office, a portrait of a school class, a trial, life in prison and so on. Characteristic of many photo-reportages from these years was the link between the factual account and the journalist’s subjective stance. In contrast to the past, reporters and photographers now often worked together to research and photograph a reportage. Occasionally, as with Wolfgang Weber, reporter and photographer were one and the same person.

In 1927, an early example of modern photo-reportage was printed in the Frankfurt-based Das Illustrierte Blatt. The photo story reported on the city of Paris. For the first time ever, the photographer, Germaine Krull, was not named below the photos. Instead, her name was printed below the title, even in front of that of the author; that is, prominently at the opening of the report: ‘Special Photographs by Germaine Krull, Text by Franz Hessel’.36 Increasingly, photos were arranged to portray narrative arcs. Examples include a story on Grock, the famous Swiss clown, published in Das Illustrierte Blatt in 1927,37 or the reportage-like series of drawings created by Hungarian-born illustrator Emmerich (Imre) Kelen.38

The photographer Paul Edmund Hahn, known in print as P. E. Hahn and recognized as one of the pioneers of German photo-reportage, produced a number of photos in close succession that demonstrate just how fluid the transition was from topical spreads to reportage.39 His first photo-stories, which appeared in Das Illustrierte Blatt in early 1928, were still simply designed topical spreads.40 Within the same year, the graphic connection between the images and text in his photo-reports became more and more pronounced.41 From 1929, his reportages began appearing in other newspapers as well, in particular the Münchner Illustrierten Presse (Fig. 5).

Figure 5 

‘Turnstunde’ [Gym Class], photo-reportage by P. E. Hahn, Münchner Illustrierte Presse 37 (1929) 1230.

The emergence of modern photo-reportage is thus the result of a protracted process stretching over years in the bourgeois and leftist illustrated media alike. The most important steps toward the emergence of modern photo-reportage, however, were the work of a small handful of illustrated papers. In 1928, the first year in which photo-reportages became more widely published, this new format appeared most frequently in a single newspaper, the Frankfurt-based Das Illustrierte Blatt. Further, albeit markedly fewer, reports also appeared that year in the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung and the Münchener Illustriere Presse.

How were these photo-reportages constructed? This question can be answered by examining a number of exemplary reportages that appeared before the boom in the new media format around 1930. One of the earliest German photo-reportages with sophisticated design was created by the well-known photographer Sasha Stone and published in Das Illustrierte Blatt in 1928 (Fig. 6).42 The photo-essay was produced on the occasion of an approaching boxing match between Max Schmeling and Franz Diener on 4 April 1928 in the Berliner Sportpalast.43 The text is markedly restrained and the author remains more or less anonymous (identified only by the letter ‘z’), thus allowing the photos to take charge of the reportage. The photographer, however, is very visibly credited beneath the title: ‘Special Photographs by Stone’. This formulation indicates that Sasha Stone carried out a contract assignment, because such ‘special photographs’ were often produced at the behest of newspapers. The graphic arrangement of the images adeptly translates the dynamic theme − the boxing match − in suggestive photo series, long shots alternate with detailed close-ups, and several figures are cut out. The reportage follows a clear narrative formula: in the two interwoven narrative threads, both protagonists are introduced. Their everyday lives, families and training regimens are depicted. This photo-essay also generates suspense since its outcome is unknown: the match has yet to happen.

Figure 6 

‘Diener oder Schmeling’ [Diener or Schmeling], photo-reportage by Sasha Stone about an upcoming boxing match in Berlin, Das Illustrierte Blatt 14 (1928) 381–3.

Sasha Stone photographed many reportages for Das Illustrierte Blatt in 1928. In the late 1920s, he was one of the paper’s most-published photographers; in addition to the reportages, he also supplied numerous individual photos, including many for the cover. Another important reportage photographer for Das Illustrierte Blatt was the aforementioned Paul Edmund Hahn, who published several one- and two-page photo-essays from early 1928 onward. Umbo, whose real name was Otto Umbehr and who worked for the Berlin-based photo agency Dephot, should also be mentioned. He published his first photo-reportage in Das Illustrierte Blatt in late 1928, with many to follow (Fig. 7). Like other freelance photographers, Umbo worked for several newspapers at once. His reportages were published not only in Das Illustrierte Blatt, but from 1929 onward also in the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung, Münchner Illustrierte Presse, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and Welt-Spiegel.44

Figure 7 

‘Modenschau am Alex’ [Fashion Show at Alexanderplatz], photo-reportage by Umbo (Otto Umbehr), Dephot photo agency, Das Illustrierte Blatt 43 (1929) 1230–1.

The Hungarian-born Emmerich (Imre) Kelen, who has long gone unrecognized in the history of photography, started as an illustrator but grew into one of the pioneers of photo-reportage in the late 1920s. He published most of his sketches and photographed stories about everyday life in Das Illustrierte Blatt and the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. His photographic report on a League of Nations summit, published in mid-1929 in Das Illustrierte Blatt, was termed a ‘photo-reportage’ for the first time in the bourgeois press.45 Photo-essays such as Kelen’s had been referred to as ‘photo-reports’, ‘feature stories’ or ‘special reports’ until that point. The term ‘photo-reportage’ appeared again in the autumn of 1929, when the Münchner Illustrierte Presse also used it for the first time.46 By 1930, the term was ubiquitous, with nearly every illustrated newspaper publishing ‘photo-reportages’.

Photography and Film: A Close Relationship

The development of modern photo-reportage fell within a phase of cultural and aesthetic experimentation that defined the art and cultural scenes of Weimar Germany from the mid-1920s onward. As the second major form of visual mass media in addition to the illustrated press, film played a special role in these years and wielded considerable societal influence. From the mid-1920s onward, new innovative currents (New Objectivity, New Vision) could be felt in photography and film alike. A clear indication of both this aesthetic reorientation and the close connection between these two forms of media was the ground-breaking exhibition ‘Film und Foto’, presented by the Deutscher Werkbund in Stuttgart in 1929 as the manifesto of the avant-garde. It cannot have been by chance that the exhibition poster depicts a photojournalist with camera in an extreme low-angle shot (Fig. 8). This motif evokes new currents in photography − New Vision, in particular − that called for a rethinking of conventional, established visual structures. Beyond this initial reading, however, the image of the photographer also illustrates the rapid rise of photojournalism in the years prior to 1930. The press photographer, who had often acted anonymously and remained unseen for so long, now stepped confidently into the public eye. In Werner Graeff’s illustrated book, published concurrently with the ‘Film und Foto’ exhibition in Stuttgart, this new breed of photographer was even announced in the title: Here Comes the New Photographer!47

Figure 8 

‘Film und Foto’ [Film and Photo], international exhibition of the Deutscher Werkbund, Stuttgart 1929, poster design: Jan Tschichold, photo: Willi Ruge.

The connection between photography and film proclaimed by the Stuttgart exhibition was by no means a mere slogan. Countless connections existed between the two forms of media in the years around 1930, although the influences of film on the illustrated press, particularly in the area of photo-reportage, are more immediately evident than the inverse. Techniques and effects common to motion pictures were seized upon and adapted to the newspaper layout. A host of narrative and creative elements from film appeared in photo-reportages, such as occasionally quick editorial cuts, round image details reminiscent of fade-ins and fade-outs, the link between long shots and close-ups and so on. Photo-reportage designers even kept a close eye on the experimental films being produced at the time. Films like Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) or Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer’s quasi-documentary film, People on Sunday (1930), exhibit many connections to photo-reportage, including thematic choices and narrative style.

In order to gauge just how close the ties were between the press and film in the 1920s, one may consider the fact that some famous directors, including Billy Wilder, began their careers as journalists. Moreover, beyond the classic photo-illustrated publications, many media groups in the 1920s also featured high-circulation illustrated film magazines in their lists. The photographically illustrated articles on feature films often imitated narrative models used in film; that is, they were presented in the form of photo-essays. Furthermore, there are several noteworthy biographies shaped by the ties between film and the illustrated press. Stefan Lorant, managing editor of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse and thus directly involved in the implementation and development of photo-reportage, had worked in the past as a screenwriter and as editor of the film publication UFA-Magazin. Conversely, before the director Robert Siodmak transferred to film in the late 1920s, he had worked as a journalist and briefly as the publisher of Das Magazin, an illustrated general-interest monthly.

Film’s impact on narrative forms in the illustrated press can also be seen in the way different newspapers reported on film and particularly its more recent developments. Those newspapers that sought to modernize their visual language in the early days − and that thus became the pioneers of photo-reportage − were much more open to modern film than other papers. This applies primarily to the Frankfurt-based Das Illustrierte Blatt, and in part to the Kölnische Illustrierte, both of which began reporting regularly on experimental Soviet film and theatre very early on.48 The conservative illustrated paper Die Woche, meanwhile, did not grant modern Soviet film any coverage, in part for ideological reasons. The varying degrees of emphasis put on film also correlate with the prevalence of photo-reportage: while nearly all German illustrated weeklies regularly printed photo-reportages by 1930, the high-circulation, Berlin-based conservative illustrated weekly Die Woche never warmed to the new media format.

Reportage Prevails

By the late 1920s, the range of illustrated newspapers printing photo-reportages had broadened substantially. From early 1929 onward, the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung began printing the first photo-reportages to incorporate complex formatting and sophisticated graphics by André Kertesz and Martin Munkácsi.49 The German photo-reportage boom reached its apex in 1931–2. Nearly every issue of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, one of the country’s leading publications, included a major reportage comprising two or more pages. These wide-ranging pictorial reports were partly designed to a high graphic and photographic standard (Fig. 9). From 1929 onward, the Münchner Illustrierte Presse also played a crucial role in the establishment of photo-reportage; in the latter half of the decade, the paper expanded rapidly, increasing its circulation from 20,000 in 1926 to 280,000 in 1927 and peaking at 700,000 in 1931.50 By 1929, the paper was regularly printing photo-reportages by contributors such as Erich Salomon, Wolfgang Weber, P. E. Hahn, Umbo and Felix H. Man. That the Münchner Illustrierte Presse should so readily embrace the new format had much to do with Stefan Lorant’s editorial vision for the paper, for which he had worked since mid-1928.51 He had been deputy editor and stationed in Berlin, the nexus of German press and agency operations, since 1929, and in June 1932 he was named editor-in-chief of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. He maintained very close personal ties to the most prominent photo agencies as well as individual photographers such as Kurt Hübschmann (who later went by Kurt Hutton, while in exile) or Felix H. Man, who would become one of the key photographers at the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. One report typical of Lorant’s interests, photographed by Felix H. Man and published in 1929 under the title ‘Between the Midnight and Dawn on the Kurfürstendamm’ (Fig. 10),52 reveals the nocturnal side of the capital. The reportage, which reveals an unconventional aspect of the conventional − a street in Berlin − was the product of close collaboration between Lorant and the photographer.

Figure 9 

‘Fußballrausch in Buenos Aires’ [Soccer Frenzy in Buenos Aires], photo-reportage by Martin Munkácsi, Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung 27 (1932) 866–7.

Figure 10 

‘Zwischen Mitternacht und Morgengrauen am Kurfürstendamm’ [Between Midnight and Dawn on the Kurfürstendamm], photo-reportage by Felix H. Man, Dephot photo agency, Münchner Illustrierte Presse 38 (1929) 1238–9.

The increased demand for photo-reportages also became evident in the work of photo agencies, which were the main distributors of images for publications. Previously, agencies had supplied primarily individual photos; from the late 1920s onward, they discovered a new market niche, in that they began offering picture series and photo-essays on a given topic, sometimes even selling virtually pre-packaged reportages.53 In 1929, two agencies in particular began pushing the sale of reportages, at times including text.54 The first was Weltrundschau, founded by Rudolf Birnbach in 1927 with photographers such as W. W. Seldowicz, Neudatschin, Erich Comeriner and the brothers Tim and Georg Gidal. The second was Dephot, founded in 1928–9 by Simon Guttmann and enlisting photographers Felix H. Man, Umbo, Walter Bosshard and Kurt Hübschmann, among others.55 Mauritius, an agency founded in 1929 by Ernst Mayer, also offered reportages in addition to individual photographs.56

In the German media around 1930, the term ‘reportage’ had become an oft-quoted trademark of journalism, and its meaning extended far beyond photo-reporting. Indeed, the genre of reportage had become inflationary, at least in the opinion of some critics: ‘Dear Egon Erwin Kisch’, Kurt Tucholsky wrote in 1931 in a letter printed in the critical journal Die Weltbühne and addressed to the most famous journalist of the time, ‘What have you done! You, at least, are a reporter, and a very good one, at that − but to see what goes by “reportage” these days. It is positively ludicrous.’57 In 1930, even the Münchner Illustrierte Presse satirized the ubiquity of reportage in an illustrated two-page spread (Fig. 11). The ironic portrayal drawn by Karl Arnold and written by Walter Foitzick depicts scribbling reporters, press photographers and illustrators at work. Instead of focusing on concise and precise reporting, the criticism outlines, the news staff are instead interested in secondary details.

Figure 11 

‘Reportage’ [Reportage], drawing: Karl Arnold, text: Walter Foitzick, Münchner Illustrierte Presse 32 (1930) 1108–9.

Power and Money: The Role of Publishers and Editors

Countless specialists were involved in shaping modern photo-reportage. The images were provided by talented photographers, who now thought more in terms of photo-essays than individual pictures and frequently illuminated unusual topics in these series. These photo-essays were often distributed by a new breed of photo agency that recognized a market niche in these multi-page reportages (and often commissioned the very same). Finally, managing and photo editors at the papers and magazines also played a central role, since they made decisions regarding the purchase and graphic layout of the photos. Barring a few exceptions (such as Stefan Lorant), the latter group has long been overlooked in the history of photography.58 The influence of these editorial teams on the development of photo-reportage, however, has proven much greater than previously known. Editors-in-chief typically cultivated close ties to the publishers and owners of their respective newspapers; economic considerations thus flowed directly into their decision-making. They, too, carefully observed the trends in competing media and developed strategies to drive circulation. Finally, it was they who managed the resources for purchasing photos or funding (often elaborate) travel reportages. Whether a photo-reportage was published, and in which format and length, was their decision, not that of the photographers or the agencies. In a late interview, Stefan Lorant, the erstwhile managing editor of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, got to the heart of the power dynamics between editors and photographers: ‘The photographers had no influence whatsoever on the selection of pictures to appear in the paper or how the photographs would be presented. Once they delivered their photographs, their job ended.’59 In more pointed terms, it could be said that modern photo-reportage was developed by the editors in charge and designed by photo editors and graphic designers bent over light tables littered with the broad-ranging materials provided by talented photographers.

The editorial teams at the illustrated weeklies were relatively small. At mid-sized newspapers such as Das Illustrierte Blatt and the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung the staff consisted of the editor-in-chief and his deputy, a photo editor, several text journalists and administrative personnel.60 The bulk of services, particularly the photographs and some copy, were purchased from freelance journalists. Editors-in-chief or managing editors thus played a central role in determining the content and graphic direction their publications took. The Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, for instance, was run by Kurt Korff (whose real name was Karfunkel), while the illustrator Karl Szafranksi served as photo editor and artistic director.61 Josef Platen ran the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung, with managing photo editors Hans Berenbrok and, starting in 1930, Wolfgang Schade. Das Illustrierte Blatt was run by Max Geisenheyner, himself a photographer who created a number of photo-reportages.62 From the late 1920s onward, the Münchner Illustrierte Presse was, as mentioned, strongly shaped by Stefan Lorant, who served first as managing editor in Berlin and later as editor-in-chief. Lorant fostered especially close ties to photo agencies and photographers. Not only did he determine the topics to be presented, he often also provided the design guidelines for select reports, drawing up sketches by hand.63

Using these as a basis, photo editors and their assistants would develop the materials into photo-essays and reportages. The photo editors were often photographers themselves and would occasionally add their own photos to the reportages. This was true of Stefan Lorant as well as his predecessor at the Berlin offices of the Münchner Illustrierte Presse, Hans Looser. Photo editors at other newspapers, such as Wolfgang Schade at the Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung, who is known to have produced a series of photo-reportages himself, did the same (Fig. 12). The decisive journalistic course toward photo-reportage was thus truly set by editorial departments. The photographers, most of whom were freelancers, were at the whim of editors’ interests and goodwill, and not the reverse. In the late 1920s, however, several press photographers’ negotiating power improved noticeably when they rose to stardom, as previously discussed. While most photojournalists could scarcely alter their low socioeconomic standing, a small handful profited from their nascent celebrity. This group included Martin Munkácsi, Wolfgang Weber, Walter Bosshard, Harald Lechenperg, Erich Salomon, Felix H. Man and the American photographer James Abbe, who published frequently in the major German illustrated papers.

Figure 12 

‘Kávéház. Ein Kaffeehaus in Ungarn und seine Besucher’ [Kávéház: A Coffeehouse in Hungary and its Visitors], photo-reportage by Wolfgang Schade, Kölnische Illustrierte Zeitung 30 (1930) 900.

These papers, particularly the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, published by the powerful Ullstein Verlag, paid star reporters decidedly more than the other photographers. The most sought-after press photographers who had already made a name for themselves were often bound to a publishing house by means of a monthly guaranteed sum; in exchange, they committed to working exclusively for that publisher’s titles. The publisher recovered a portion of these enormous photographer salaries − which often enabled long reporting trips − through the sale of exclusive photographic material for reprinting by other outlets. In this way, long photo-reportages would often appear in different versions, particularly when it came to travel reports in multiple instalments: first in the master version in the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung and then weeks later with changes to content and graphics in regional illustrated papers. In retrospect, Kurt Korff, editor-in-chief of the Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, described this economic system of star-creation and photo sales: ‘I found out that there was no sense in picking out a few pictures, even the best ones, of a series. It is better to take the hole [sic] lot and leave nothing to the other magazines. There were two or three staff photographers, like Mr. Munkácsi, who got a high guarantee and were not allowed to work for any other magazine. They got special commissions, went on expensive, three months [sic] trips in foreign countries. Part of their expenses were covered by selling pictures to foreign magazines. I found out that it is the best to pay very high prices for extremly [sic] good pictures and series sent in and offered by photographers and agencies. By paying those prices, I was shure [sic] to get the best material. The rumor spread to all the free lance [sic] photo reporters, and they used to offer all pictures for first choice.’64 A similar system, albeit with less lavish pay, was in place at the Münchner Illustrierte Presse. The paper’s star photographer, Wolfgang Weber, earned the formidable monthly sum of 1,250 Reichsmarks in 1931; by contrast, the average yearly income of a professional with a university degree hovered around 5,000 Reichsmarks.65

Post-1933: Break and Rebirth

The rise to power of the Nazi Party in Berlin in early 1933 had a massive impact on the German press. While left-leaning or otherwise critical media were forbidden, the bourgeois press appeared to continue publishing without pause. The new authorities’ political agenda rapidly found expression in the content of the newspapers. Nazi media policy was characterized by open political repression on the one hand and striking innovative drive on the other. The latter was particularly evident in newspapers’ graphic layout, for example in the modernization of cover design and font choices.66 Photo-reportage did not vanish from German illustrated newspapers after 1933; instead, it persisted, frequently under new ideological auspices. The core of journalists who had played a key role in establishing photo-reportage prior to 1933 had been replaced: Jewish publishers, editors, photographers and designers had represented an above-average portion of the journalistic workforce in the Weimar Republic. After 1933, they were faced with persecution and deportation. Several of those who had contributed significantly to establishing photo-reportage in German newspapers, such as Stefan Lorant, Kurt Korff or Kurt Szafranksi, quickly re-established themselves professionally. Many other exiled press photographers brought along the professional skills they had acquired in Germany to their new homes, ultimately contributing fundamentally to the development of photojournalism and photo-reportage, especially in England and the United States.67 These included Alfred Eisenstaedt, Martin Munkácsi, Tim Gidal, Kurt Hübschmann (Hutton) and Felix H. Man, among others. Without knowledge of their start in photojournalism in Weimar Germany or, indeed, of the highly developed German media system around 1930, these photographers’ new careers in exile might appear unlikely. The continuation of modern German photo-reportage around 1930 could be found − albeit under new media and societal conditions − in Anglo-Saxon photojournalism.

There are specific reasons behind the enormous influence German photojournalism exercised over the American media which cannot be examined in detail here. Curiously enough, after the leading American illustrated papers Harper’s Weekly (1916) and Leslie’s Weekly (1922) were founded, there were no major magazines to provide a platform for experimentation with advanced forms of photographic reporting until 1936. The 1920s and 1930s, in particular, represented an era of new media outlets and photojournalistic reorientation. The illustrated magazine Liberty was founded in 1924, Fortune in 1929 and News-Week in 1933; its red banner would serve as graphic inspiration for LIFE. Ken, a large-format, biweekly magazine, appeared in early 1938. The popular newspaper PM (with its weekly illustrated edition, PM Weekly) was founded in 1940 and employed photographers such as Weegee. Graphically speaking, however, these magazines were relatively conservative compared to the advanced publications produced in Weimar Germany. In the mid-1930s, with the founding of influential and high-circulation magazines LIFE (1936) and Look (1938), a new, trendsetting journalistic model was established in American photojournalism. Both publications, but especially LIFE, profited considerably from the outset from European-style press photography and journalistic innovations imported from the Weimar Republic. Many German photojournalists who had been forced to flee brought these concepts into the country. Furthermore, photo agencies founded by emigrants, such as Black Star (1936), contributed fundamentally to the spread of German photojournalistic models throughout the United States. In some cases, this intellectual diffusion can be found persisting into the post-war years, as in the reportages by the photo agency Magnum (founded in 1947), which led to a melding of European and American traditions in photojournalism.68 The details of this cultural transfer may be the subject of a separate study.


The goal of this article was to reconstruct the development of modern photo-reportage as the dominant form of media in the Weimar Republic around 1930. It has demonstrated that critical structural factors that set the course for the development of the illustrated press in the years between the world wars already began years before the circulation boom of the 1920s. The development of photo-reportage within the media system of the Weimar Republic was the outcome of complex economic circumstances. After 1924–1925, the illustrated press experienced exponential growth in circulation, which was reflected in increasingly fierce competition between the papers. To distinguish themselves, smaller and mid-sized papers were the first to focus on graphic and photographic innovations, investing in the establishment of new narrative forms in journalism. Within a few short years, the new media format of photo-reportage had been mainstreamed, and its use had become nearly ubiquitous. In addition to economic factors impacting the emergence of photo-reportage, the particular socio-political climate of Weimar Germany also played a significant role. The tremendous political mobilization between left and right, coupled with the rise of high-circulation, party-affiliated publications, contributed to the new reality that by the mid-1920s, photographic illustrated mass media were becoming increasingly important for political communications. The left-wing illustrated press, in particular, played a hitherto underappreciated role in the emergence of modern photo-reportage.

This study of the history of photo-reportage focused on the years leading up to 1933. However, one must not overlook the fact that this form of media persisted after 1933, developing further in various directions. Photo-reportages continued to be published in Germany during the Nazi era, although the format was significantly less widespread than it had been during the Weimar Republic. To date, no well-founded studies have been done on the media, political and aesthetic development of photo-reportage after 1933.69 In contrast, the topic of ‘German photojournalists in exile’ has been examined repeatedly from a range of perspectives,70 although significant gaps in this research also remain. For instance, there has been no substantive investigation into the reception of German photo-reportage in British and American illustrated media from the 1930s onward. A study of this sort would have to examine the professional networks of exiled photographers (for instance, those employed at Black Star) and the journalistic transfer of ideas between editors, photo editors and newspaper publishers,71 as well as the commercial and aesthetic strategies implemented by the major illustrated magazines, such as LIFE, Look or Picture Post. After all, the publishers of these titles had paid close attention to the publishing models that flourished in Weimar Germany.