Starting in the mid-1950s, a group of interested professionals in the photographic industry and cultural sector of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) began meeting to discuss the need for a photography museum in East Germany. These discussions cite the importance of Dresden as a centre for the photography industry and competing trends in the collection and display of photography in West Germany.1 One of the industry representatives in this discussion was Walter Hahn, a photography enthusiast with a doctorate in Art History who worked for many years in the camera industry in Dresden, serving as head of the advertising department at Zeiss Ikon, a Dresden camera manufacturer that preceded the present-day Carl Zeiss AG, or Zeiss International. Forgoing his retirement, he would officially found the Museum for Photography (Museum für Photographie) on his own in 1958 after the process of creating the museum stalled.2 During the twelve years of the museum’s existence, Hahn battled, with little success, for funding, attention and legitimacy for his project. This did not dampen his resolve, and he worked tirelessly on the project of collecting, preserving and exhibiting the photography of German Lichtbildmeister until his death in early 1970.

Hahn’s ambitions to expand his museum, achieve legitimacy and independence within the GDR and gain membership of an international community of collectors and museum professionals drove him to contact numerous figures throughout the world and led to many fruitful exchanges on questions of the history of photography and the state of collections internationally. Hahn used these contacts and his publications to advocate for his museum, but also to appeal, without success, to GDR officials’ sense of competition with the West. His exchanges with Western figures in the photography museum also often eluded the attention of the cultural leadership within the East German Cultural League (Kulturbund) and its sub-agency, the Central Commission for Photography (Zentrale Kommission Fotografie, or ZKF).

In this article, I will address the degree to which Hahn’s networking through publications and correspondence tied him more closely to the international community of photography collectors and photography museums – particularly in the West – than his Cultural League colleagues could sanction. Ultimately, these contacts secured Hahn neither a lasting place in the community of historians and curators of photography internationally, nor viable support for his museum project within East Germany. Overall, I will argue that Hahn’s Museum for Photography is both a historical and a historiographical anomaly: it was a national museum whose model did not fit the ideological priorities of the GDR cultural leadership, and thus could not fulfill its function. It is also a historical anomaly that can productively complicate narratives of the museumification of photographs, the nature of Cold War cultural diplomacy and the idea of the national museum, along with our understanding of GDR history.

Hahn’s Museum for Photography in History and Historiography

Determining the real possibilities for photographic production and exhibition in East Germany can be extremely difficult. Our received history of GDR photography today is often based on the concept of ‘two image worlds’ within the socialist state. This narrative maps two trajectories of GDR photography: on the one hand, images sanctioned by the state and conforming to the socialist realist aesthetic, as embodied by the censored and controlled press, and on the other hand, the opposing movement of the Gegenbilder, or ‘oppositional images’, of artistic/documentary photographers who emerged starting in the 1960s and increasingly left their mark on GDR culture through to the 1980s.3 These photographs and photographers, including Evelyn Richter, Arno Fischer and Gundula Schulze Eldowy, among others, who produced images under the radar of the GDR state censors despite often having parallel work in public contexts, have been assimilated into the post-1989 understanding of GDR ‘artistic’ photography. Numerous important names and images have been discovered and given due attention by historians and critics. This dual history of East German photography pits creativity and independence in photography (often labelled as the ‘artistic’ photography of the GDR) against the propagandistically categorized ‘official’ images (non-artistic photography).

Despite some notable studies pushing the boundaries of the two-image-worlds structure largely through study of specific projects and cases, it is not surprising that Hahn’s Museum for Photography occupies such a small place in the discourse on the history of East German photography to date (Figure 1).4 Although the museum definitely enjoyed a relationship with the Cultural League in Berlin and its Central Commission for Photography and officially grew out of state-owned and approved entities within East Germany, it does not sit easily in the historiographical category of ‘official’ photography in the GDR. Nor did it fit into the ideological goals of GDR cultural agencies within its own historical moment. Hahn’s view of photographic history was challenging to the socialist establishment, as has been argued elsewhere, particularly in that he focused on Lichtbildmeister or ‘masters of the photographic image’ – essentially, artistic photographers – instead of limiting himself to Soviet photographers, post-war ‘rubble’ photographers and leftist amateur Worker Photographers, or Arbeiterfotografen, of the 1920s and 30s, who dominated the GDR leadership’s preferred version of their national photographic history.5

Figure 1. 

Walter Hahn in his Museum, no date. (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

A body of literature on the reception of the Worker Photographers and their importance to the socialist project and to a GDR-specific concept of photographic history has been developing in recent years, including overviews of Worker Photography’s reception in both East and West Germany.6 These texts, as well as Nadine Kulbe’s account of the impact of biographical texts by former Worker Photographers published in the GDR in Wolfgang Hesse’s 2012 edited volume Das Auge des Arbeiters: Arbeiterfotografie und Kunst um 1930, paint a mixed picture of the influence of Worker Photographers.7 The construction of a GDR-specific German culture was often a disorganized, shifting undertaking, whether in the spheres of art, literature or music, and Worker Photography had a complicated relationship with the post-war socialist context.8

An essay by Andreas Krase, also in Das Auge des Arbeiters, addresses a large work of photographic history from Walter Hahn that has never been published, outlining Hahn’s historical periodization concept and its poor fit with authoritative leftist GDR experts on history and photography.9 Krase’s essay, like Wolfgang Hesse’s ‘Am Rande des Bitterfelder Weges: Zur Rolle der Arbeiterfotografie im Dresdner Museum für Fotografie’, explicitly addresses the connection between Walter Hahn’s view of photographic history inclusive of ‘bourgeois’, ‘artistic’ images – what he considered masterpieces of early German photography – and its dissonance with the the focus on amateur Worker Photography among cultural authorities. In none of the literature to date, however, are Hahn’s extensive contacts with the West, his failed attempts at cultural diplomacy and his resulting failure to find a functioning role as collector and museum director explored at length.10 This article is an attempt to broaden the discourse on Hahn’s museum, but also to contribute to a more complex understanding of photographic culture outside the press but within the ‘official’ realm of the GDR.

While its ill-fitting relationship with official narratives of photography left Hahn’s museum in a tortured relationship with cultural leadership, it has also been invisible within historical narratives of museum culture in East Germany. Scholars often assert that the photographic medium first found its place as an artistic medium within state-sanctioned museum culture with its entry into the Ninth Art Exhibition of the GDR in Dresden in 1982. As Karl Gernot Kuehn wrote in his book, Caught: The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic:

Several definitive events helped to nurture the transhistorical culture of photography after Medium Fotografie One such event was the Ninth National Art Exhibition of the GDR (IX. Kunstausstellung der DDR), held in Dresden in 1982. This prestigious show had been presented every four years since 1950, but only now, for the first time, did it include photography. In fact there is no evidence that any of the more than seventy museums in the GDR had ever shown photography before. Whereas the medium had often been called an art, in reality it was considered a communications device for propaganda, valued for the graphic message and accompanying text, but not the print itself.11

Despite Kuehn’s placement of photography’s entry into GDR museum culture with the 1977 Medium Fotografie exhibition and the 1982 national art exhibition, photography was collected, catalogued and displayed in an artistic context within Hahn’s museum of photography beginning in the late 1950s. And, in fact, as Andreas Krase rightly points out, the impulse for Medium Fotografie, generally seen as a major moment of photography’s coming into being as an artistic medium in the GDR, almost seamlessly incorporated the Lichtbildmeister favoured by Hahn’s collection.12 So why has Hahn’s museum been overlooked in the narrative? In part, its complete disappearance as an institution is to blame.

The Museum for Photography failed to find a lasting, autonomous place in East German society beyond its founder’s death in 1969, when it was dissolved and its collections absorbed in to the Polytechnical Museum in Dresden (now the Technical Collections Dresden). Despite its status as the first and only true museum of photography in the GDR’s lifetime, it has been largely lost to history until recently. Nonetheless, Walter Hahn’s interactions within the international museum community represent a significant instance of the international circuit of photographic images and literature during the Cold War. Due to these interactions, as well as Hahn’s repeated conflicts with the Central Commission for Photography and Cultural League about the acceptable historical narrative within the socialist context of the GDR, the Museum for Photography ultimately challenges an easy division between independent, artistic and state-bound, socialist photography projects and institutions during the Cold War in East Germany.

The Founding and Development of the Museum for Photography

In 1956, a meeting was convened in Berlin to discuss the ‘Initiative for the Founding of a Museum of Photography’, at which Walter Hahn represented the camera industry.13 At this meeting, the three-part organization of the museum was established as: (1) cameras and other technical equipment; (2) photographic prints; and (3) photographic literature. Unfortunately, nothing came of this meeting in terms of concrete action.14 In 1957, Dr. Hahn reached retirement age, but instead offered his services as leader of the defunct museum project.15 The museum was officially founded by Hahn in 1958 with the financial backing of the camera industry.16 However, after a first year of financial support, the industrial organizations involved argued that the institution should be funded directly by a state agency.17

When the authorities of the city of Dresden were approached, care of the museum was placed in the hands of the Scholarly Museums and Libraries (Wissenschaftliche Museen und Bibliotheken) in cooperation with the Ministry of Universities and Professional Schools (Ministerium für Hoch- und Fachschulwesen), due to what was seen as the technical nature of a large part of the potential collections.18 As of 1961, it was one of fifteen ‘Scholarly Museums’ throughout the GDR, and one of six in Dresden.19 By 1962, remaining sources of assistance for the museum outside the ministry included Fotokinoverlag in Halle, the main publisher of photography-related books in the GDR, as well as the magazines Fotografie and Bild und Ton, which targeted still and moving picture technology and also included some articles on composition and amateur shooting; Agfa Wolfen; and an affiliate of Hahn’s former employer, Carl Zeiss in Jena.

Referring to the collection of prints and reproductions in 1962, Hahn listed as ‘treasures’ the estate of photographer Hermann Krone, as well as the work of Franz Fiedler and original works from László Moholy-Nagy, John Heartfield, Edmund Kesting, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Erna Lendvai-Dircksen, Heinrich Kühn, Hugo Erfurth, Louis Held and Paul Wolff, all stemming from both eastern and western parts of Germany prior to the Second World War, as well as the GDR’s Richard Peter, Sen., Gerhard Kiesling, Max Ittenbach and Heinz Föppel, among others.20 He also noted the acquisition in 1960–1961 of a library of photographic books, as well as the continuing acquisition of cameras and missing issues of photographic magazines. His plans for future work in 1962 included acquiring further literature, magazines and photographic prints, as well as closing various gaps in the history of cameras and lenses within the museum’s collection. Hahn also lists the acquisition of what he calls ‘documentary-scholarly images’ and Worker Photography, mentioning that his collection already had images by Worker Photographers Kurt Beck and Richard Peter, Sen.21

This accounts for the creation of the museum and its initial backing and acquisitions, but in what form did it exist as a real museum beyond its title? For the first ten years of the museum’s existence, it did not function as a museum in the sense of a location where objects could be displayed for or visited by the public. Hahn’s museum was an extensive archive of early German photography, a library and a collection of photographica that was largely hidden in a small space on the Käthe-Kollwitz-Ufer in Dresden (Figure 2). As Hahn put it in 1961: ‘In terms of function, the museum has been on the road consistently for about a year’.22 Hahn made several significant loans of photographs to exhibitions within the GDR, both those created by him and larger shows for which he was a contributor, such as the industry-showcasing Film Foto Funk Fernsehen (Film, Photo, Radio, Television), or FFFF, exhibitions in 1960 and 1963 in Dresden, which emphasized Dresden’s role as a centre for media technology (Figures 3 and 4).23 Hahn’s photographic materials were also shown in Berlin, Budapest and Prague, in Leipzig on the occasion of the Leipziger Herbstmesse in 1960, and alongside amateur works under the title 125 Jahre Fotografie or 125 Years of Photography in Zwickau at a district-wide exhibition of photography club images.24

Figure 2. 

The Museum für Fotografie interior, no date. (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

Figure 3. 

Installation shot, FFFF exhibition, 1963 (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

Figure 4. 

Installation shot featuring Albert Renger-Patsch and Der Arbeiter-Fotograf magazine, FFFF exhibition, 1963 (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

Throughout the Museum’s existence, Hahn’s biggest point of contention and the catalyst for pleas and arguments with individuals and institutions throughout East Germany centred around the museum’s lack of autonomy. Before the museum was officially subsumed within the Scholarly Museums in 1960–1961, a surge of correspondence from Hahn pleaded with all who would listen for the museum’s independence. Since it was placed under the administrative authority of the Mathematical-Physical Salon, Hahn constantly battled with the Salon’s leadership over money and autonomy. In the later 1960s, he would again complain at his lack of status within the Dresden museum community, where he was expected to attend meetings of the directors of the Scholarly Museums and endure insults from the other museum directors about how unimportant his museum was, all the while not able to function as a self-sufficient director himself.25

In 1968, after taking over a new space that opened up in the same building as his museum, Hahn opened the Museum for Photography to the public with a permanent exhibition.26 This display included 333 photos, 127 cameras and fifty camera lenses. He promoted the exhibition’s dialectical historical methodology and prominently featured Worker Photography, due undoubtedly to pressure from Berlin to make his collection reflect the acceptable narrative of photo history (Figure 5).27 Hahn’s periodization of photography according to Lichtbildmeister was still apparent in the permanent exhibition, which included an ‘Erfurth-Raum’, a ‘Renger-Raum’ and a ‘Heartfield-Raum’ alongside his collection of Worker Photography. However, this ‘permanent’ display would be short-lived (Figure 6).

Figure 5. 

Unknown workers’ wall, Permanent Display, Museum für Photographie, Dresden, no date (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

Figure 6. 

Renger-Patsch wall, Permanent Display, Museum für Photographie, Dresden, no date (Museen der Stadt Dresden – Technische Sammlungen Dresden).

In the process of creating, financing, expanding and promoting his museum, Hahn interacted with a host of significant figures in both the GDR photographic and museum communities. He maintained a membership in the Central Commission and friendly correspondence with historian Wolfgang Baier, whom Hahn called the ‘senior historian’ of photography in the GDR.28 Hahn also corresponded with the artist John Heartfield, the famous Dresden photographer Richard Peter, Sen. and the exhibition designer and writer Rita Maahs, along with various figures within the cultural leadership of the GDR.29 Maahs was the co-creator of the 1967 photography exhibition Vom Glück des Menschen, which was originally titled The Socialist Family of Man and intended as a socialist rejoinder to Edward Steichen’s world-renowned, pro-Western Family of Man photography exhibition.30 Hahn also traded information, images and books with West German and other international contacts. His obvious desire was to promote publications being produced in the GDR, to lure important cultural figures into his museum as visitors and advisors and to increase the profile of his own libraries.31

Not only was Hahn an extensive networker both within and outside the GDR, he was also a prolific writer, publishing in East Germany as well as in West Germany, Poland and the USSR.32 His work included profiles of his museum, articles on specific photographers in his collection, reviews of exhibitions – including the photokina festival in Cologne, West Germany – and essays about historical developments in German photography, as well as the occasional piece about a camera or a development in photographic technology. Hahn was trained as an art historian, and his interest, he asserted, was explicitly in the history of German photography from a materialist perspective.33 He was concerned with a select number of ‘masters’ of German photography, and his historical narratives were biographically based, selective and grounded in moments of technological advance, such as the development of heavy industry in Germany and the emergence of various cameras and lenses onto the market.34

International Networks and the Museum for Photography

Throughout the life of the museum, Hahn’s collections of photographic literature and prints and copies benefitted from his own independent networking in the international photographic collecting and museum community. Although limited access to foreign currency allowed him to purchase almost no foreign books, Hahn gathered an enormous library of prints and books through exchanges. The improvised nature of the market for photography within the GDR and the Cultural League’s disinterest in Hahn’s day-to-day operations – with a few significant exceptions – allowed him space to develop relationships with scholars and museum professionals that may not have been possible if he had been a more high-profile figure. Walter Hahn’s museum and his wider career as a historian and collector were a platform for the transfer of photographic images and information about photography internationally during the Cold War. I argue here that Hahn’s career as a museum director highlights the degree to which disorganization within the cultural leadership for photography within the Cultural League and the incomplete nature of centralized control over cultural activity in the GDR allowed for a rich nexus of photographic information and images to develop under the radar in Hahn’s museum. His case also confirms the need for more studies examining the porousness of the division between East and West during the Cold War.35

In a 1960 article entitled ‘Museums as Sources for the History of Photography’ in the West German photography magazine Foto Prisma, Hahn declared:

Just as every photograph gives duration to the fleeting moments of life, so does every Museum of Photography yet again lift the materials and accomplishments of significant photographers out of the rivers of the past, in a far-reaching scope, in order to preserve them for the present and future.36

In this article, Hahn asked the reader if it was even worth the struggle to build a photography collection from the ground up in the post-war era, when so many documents and images had been lost. Listing brave museum collectors such as Alfred Lichtwark, Professor Stenger of Hamburg, Helmut Gernsheim and his wife in the United Kingdom, as well as naming various cities where collections had been built (Prague, Munich, New York, Budapest and Essen, for instance), Hahn situated himself in the midst of this company: ‘The Museum of Photography in the old photo-city of Dresden now places itself since the beginning of 1958 among these’.37 This claim was no small gesture – Hahn saw himself as part of the international movement to establish photography collections, not only as a contributing member of socialist society or even a standard-bearer for socialist culture abroad.

What followed in Hahn’s Foto Prisma article was a brief description of his collection to date, with a focus on Dresden as a photography centre and the images of Hermann Krone, along with a contextualization of his museum among the collections of early photography at the Dresden Kupferstichkabinett and the collection of the Technische Hochschule Dresden.38 Hahn’s West German introduction of the Museum for Photography was a play for legitimacy among the world’s swiftly-emerging and developing museum photography collections and simultaneously an advertisement for his museum project. He established and maintained contact with the collections he listed in this article and with collections on his list of cities. In so doing, he joined the discussions among major players in this new field of photography museums. He wrote to his frequent correspondent Werner Wurst of the Foto Prisma article:

Naturally, I highlighted the museum in Dresden fittingly in it. From the standpoint of photography, allow me to cite Goethe: western and eastern lands rest in the peace created by HIS own hands. Hopefully he will let the bombs with Uranium 285, and also with Plutonium and Tritium, rest for a little while longer.39

Hahn hoped that these kinds of connections with the West could bridge the gap between societies and political systems and form connections rather than conflicts. This was not a point of view shared by his colleagues in the ‘official’ circles of the Cultural League and Central Commission for Photography, whose focus was on valorizing leftist German and Soviet photography and that which was produced in the ‘socialist brotherlands’, rather than forging connections with the West.

Although he remained at odds with local ideology and authorities, it is tempting to see Hahn’s project within the discourse on cultural diplomacy in the Cold War, given his cordial contact with the West. If he had enjoyed more sustained support from the Cultural League and Central Commission, as he had hoped for, he might have been the official bearer of masterworks of early East German photography to the West in order to promote the GDR and compete with photographic cultures abroad. As scholars such as Marilyn Kushner, Frances Stonor Saunders and Serge Guilbaut have described, abstract expressionist art became a political tool for selling the American way of life abroad during the Cold War.40 Modernism was, of course, a hotly debated choice as a diplomatic tool. However, it was successful in instances like the Moscow Art Exhibition of 1959 at conveying a sense of freedom and possibility about American culture to Eastern audiences. More recently, Greg Barnhisel has extended these studies and commentaries, arguing for a view of Cold War modernism in American cultural diplomacy as less organized and monolithic an effort than previous histories would suggest.41 Hahn’s milieu was similarly messy and a case of how GDR cultural agencies and organizations often acted at cross-purposes.

Barnhisel refers to cultural diplomacy in that case as ‘a project of one state to use its people and institutions…to present an argument, usually about culture, to the people of other states’.42 The squabbling over modernism as a tool for promotion of the West on one side of the iron curtain can be seen as a foil for debates over what narrative of photographic history would serve the socialist context of the GDR on the Eastern side. Without the consistent backing of the state for his cultural point of view, Hahn’s museum project is difficult to place in the category of cultural diplomacy, despite his international communications. He could not go to a Rockefeller or other non-state agency to side-step the Cultural League, and he could not rally the state agencies effectively to his cause. He also could not fully exploit his relationships abroad, as remarkable as they were. His activities could be seen as leaning toward cultural diplomacy, but he was a diplomat without the blessing of his state. Nonetheless, he was committed to educating whoever would listen within the GDR about the importance of the kind of cultural diplomacy he wanted to achieve. His communications with other photography professionals were, despite the results of his project, remarkably productive.

Hahn managed to amass a tremendous collection in an improvised market for photographs that was driven purely by his self-generated contacts in the 1950s and 1960s; at this point there were no art dealers officially selling photography, and there was no actual ‘art market’ for photographs in the GDR. In addition, he took great care to establish contact with major collections and photography museums throughout the world, while continually positioning his museum as a counterpart to these institutions. He was in communication with such figures as Beaumont Newhall of the George Eastman House, Edward Steichen’s secretary Grace Mayer of the Museum of Modern Art and Otto Steinert, Professor of Photography at the Folkwangschule in Essen, West Germany, who was rapidly building a photography collection during Hahn’s tenure that would eventually belong to the Museum Folkwang.43 He also corresponded with figures such as Helmut Gernsheim, famous for his photography collection and for his comprehensive History of Photography of 1955.44 This formed part of a pattern that we have already encountered: Hahn’s establishment of mutual cultural exchange with contacts around the world.45

Hahn also played host and representative to a variety of correspondents and visitors from abroad who sought him out for more information about photography in the GDR and about his specific collections. In 1961, he declared: ‘Apparently the Museum of Photography already has a certain international reputation’.46 His international contacts and visitors to the museum included Marina Bugajewa from the USSR photo magazine Sowjetskoye Foto, who visited the museum in 1960 and wrote a report for the magazine on her visit entitled ‘What does the Museum for Photography Want?’47

Walter Hahn was greatly preoccupied with establishing the reputation of the museum in relation to other efforts to collect and display photography, particularly in West Germany. In 1960, he wrote to Herr Germer, Head of the Scholarly Libraries, Museums and Publications within the Ministry of Universities and Professional Schools of the GDR, using the heading ‘Independent Museum of Photography as Research Facility’.48 In this letter, he argued for the significance of the collection, research and writings of Helmut Gernsheim. Hahn also wrote extensively and traded publications in the same year with Gernsheim, who was interested in images by Hermann Krone, which were difficult to acquire in the United Kingdom, and offered to arrange an exchange with Hahn in 1960.49

In an essay entitled ‘The Necessity of a National Museum and Institute of Photography’, Gernsheim wrote in 1955 that, ‘though there are a number of institutes of photo-chemistry and photo-technology, we lack up till now in Europe an institute dealing with the history and aesthetics of photography’.50 This statement echoed the language throughout the record of the GDR about the need for a photography museum and placed this impulse in an international context.51 Gernsheim wrote, echoing Hahn’s own sentiment: ‘Photography is still a young art form and no doubt in time this strange state of affairs will be remedied, but unless a start is soon made with systematic collection of all photographs of aesthetic, scientific or documentary merit, there is a grave danger that many valuable examples may be lost forever’.52 In response to this essay and Gernsheim’s point of view, Hahn wrote to Germer:

As is generally known, we in the GDR strive to achieve a high standing throughout all areas of the world. Therefore, Gernsheim’s ideas about a proper Museum of Photography in England should be of particular interest.

Wouldn’t it be a worthy goal for the GDR to try to reach the world-class level in this area – not belatedly, but rather leading the way, before the others get that far?53

In Hahn’s view, Gernsheim’s desires were proof of the necessity for the GDR to become more competitive, and of course he played on Germer’s vanity with this comparison.

Hahn was also visited by Otto Steinert in 1961, and the two photography collectors maintained a correspondence throughout the life of the Museum.54 On the one hand, Hahn corresponded with GDR contacts about his interactions and competition with Steinert, photographer, collector, and Head of the West German Association of Photographers (GDL).55 On the other hand, Hahn directly offered to lend Steinert images by Hugo Erfurth as early as 1960.56 In 1961, Hahn described Steinert’s visit to the archive and museum to Germer and emphasized the fact that Steinert was impressed by the collection. Again appealing to the spirit of competition, Hahn pointed out that while Steinert had recently acquired 100 originals by Alfred Kuhn, there were only two in the Dresden collection, and that Steinert had acquired numerous images from Albert Renger-Patzsch. Hahn particularly stressed Steinert’s openness when he wrote to Germer:

It is perhaps also of interest to you that Prof. Steinert was the strongest opponent of our concept of images in the GDR. Until now, he was an apologist for surrealist and subjective ideas. He has, however, just now given up on them and is coming back even more strongly to realism, as it is emerging in the socialist context.57

Presenting the West as competition was one of Hahn’s favoured strategies for using his international contacts to his advantage within the GDR – though this does not seem to have brought him closer to achieving his goals of independence for his institution. Appealing to a sense of antagonism toward the West seemed to be aimed at motivating his colleagues to allow him to expand the museum in order to compete internationally, rather than reflecting his own animosity toward Western culture. In the quotation above, Hahn seems to be suggesting that, despite being a source of Western competition, Steinert’s tastes are in line with the socialist requirement for realism – perhaps another device to manipulate the East German authorities. Judging from exchanges of personal letters with Steinert, however, Hahn had a friendship with his counterpart collector that was quite collegial and not at all built on aggressive competition.58 Much as with his expansion of the Worker Photographer section of his collection, Hahn made concessions to the priorities of GDR authorities and appealed to their weaknesses, I would argue, in order to further his own very international goals.

Only a limited number of German historical photographs were available to purchase in the undeveloped artistic photography market of the GDR, particularly due to losses in the Second World War. Hahn argued to a Herr Sperling of the ORWO film factory Wolfen in 1967 that Steinert, as well as Karl Pawek, who created the West German ‘World Photography Exhibitions’ of the 1960s, presented direct competition for the acquisition of particular collections. In reference to the attempts of all of them to purchase remaining original plates of Hugo Erfurth and Louis Held from him, Hahn mentioned Steinert working to achieve this acquisition, along with Karl Pawek, who apparently became confused and wrote in his capacity as editor of the West German Stern magazine to Hahn’s Museum trying to reach Held, who had died in 1927, personally.59

In a letter to the Commercial Director at VEB Filmfabrik Wolfen, in which he laments the factory’s decision not to fund the project of moving the Museum for Photography into an abandoned gatehouse near the Japanese Palace in Dresden, where they would have enough space to create a permanent display, Hahn complained that Steinert had money from the West German Krupp corporation backing his acquisitions, while he himself was still grappling with being a non-displaying museum with reluctant backers.60 In reality, Steinert was a cooperative partner and a fellow collector with whom Hahn discussed, among other issues, the difficulties of acquiring historical photographs. For instance, the two commiserated about the difficulty of acquiring images by the late Erich Salomon from his son.61 Hahn’s disappointment over his lack of state support relative to Steinert was arguably misplaced. Privately- and corporate-funded institutions were possible in the capitalist West, but all industrial partners were state-owned in the GDR. This is another facet of Hahn’s inability to either join the community of international museums on their own terms or to get his needs met within the East German system.

Beaumont Newhall of the George Eastman House initially contacted Hahn in 1960, sending books in hopes of an exchange and offering to include Hahn and his museum in the Focal Encyclopedia of Photography.62 They traded German books on Alfred Lichtwark for Edward Steichen’s A Life in Photography. Newhall also sent Hahn a copy of his own History of Photography, for which Hahn offered Wolfgang Baier’s Quellendarstellung zur Geschichte der Fotografie.63 After receiving Newhall’s History, Hahn ventured to submit several small corrections to Newhall’s book in his next letter, including the spelling and correct name of his former company, Carl Zeiss Ikon.64 Newhall and Hahn also discussed art historical questions about photography, including the importance of Paul Strand’s work and the under-recognized role of the Vienna Camera Club in the medium’s early history.65

Interestingly, Hahn used his contact with Newhall to explore the idea of pictorial photography, which was central to his narrative of German photo history, asking for Newhall’s thoughts on this historical impulse. Newhall replied: ‘I believe that the whole movement, however serious, was a tragic failure’.66 Hahn would not have found many interlocutors for this kind of historical discussion in the GDR context, as socialist realism as a politically-infused style was a requirement in both plastic arts and photography. Pictorialist photography, grouped within other forms of bürgerlich, or bourgeois, photography and art, was considered a decadent, ‘capitalist’ style.67 This exchange, and that with Grace Mayer detailed below, support my theory that Hahn was placating GDR leadership in promoting Worker Photography and stressing competition with the West, while his interests were geared toward an international view of photographic history and an international photographic community.

Other contacts in the United States for Hahn included Louis Walton Sipley, director of the recently founded Museum of Photography in Philadelphia.68 Sipley not only sent Hahn books from the United States, but also claimed that he planned to add Hahn and his museum to a new American encyclopedia of photography.69 Hahn also used his correspondence with Sipley to make a historical point and to brag about his own collection by asserting that Louis Held’s photographic work, examples of which he already had in his collection in Dresden, was equal to and perhaps superior to that of Eugène Atget. Comparing himself to the currently existing museums collecting photography in West Germany, Hahn wrote: ‘Here in East Germany, our museum is the only one of its kind’.70 This was likely in response to the claim in the American museum’s brochure he had received from Sipley that it was the ‘First American Museum of the Photo-Graphic Arts’.71

Perhaps most impressive are Hahn’s extensive and friendly exchanges with Grace Mayer, personal secretary to the ageing Edward Steichen.72 Hahn wrote to Steichen in 1960 looking for books that he was not able to acquire in the GDR and asking if it would be possible for The Family of Man to travel to East Germany.73 This is particularly striking, given the status of Steichen’s exhibition as the standard-bearer for the Western way of life, touring under the auspices of the United States Information Agency.74 Steichen’s photograph entitled Family of Man was the only photograph to be included in the controversial 1959 Moscow Art Exhibition promoting American culture, largely by way of modern art, to the Soviets.75 As mentioned earlier, Hahn’s colleague Rita Maahs would design a socialist counter-exhibition only seven years later. Grace Mayer responded, explaining that Steichen was too ill to correspond and asking Hahn for information about German artist Christian Schad and American photographer Frank Eugene Smith, who had spent time teaching in Leipzig.76 Their correspondence continued across Hahn’s tenure, and Mayer even implied in 1964 that the new director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA), John Szarkowski, would make a trip to Europe in the following year and would look forward to meeting Hahn in person.77 It is unclear from archival materials whether they ever met, although it seems unlikely.

Photography collectors both from Eastern and Western European countries sought Hahn out as a curator and expert in the history of photography. The Mährische Galerie in Brno in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic wrote to Hahn in 1962 for advice on building up their own museum collection of photography.78 R. S. Schultze, research librarian and curator at the Kodak Museum in the United Kingdom, who received Hahn’s address from East German photo historian Wolfgang Baier, wrote looking for old German cameras in exchange for Kodak cameras and historic films.79 The founders of the first museum of photography in France, located in Paris, reached out to VEB Pentacon Dresden camera company in 1964, and their letter was forwarded by the company to Hahn, in the hope that he would advise them and assist with the development of their collection of cameras.80

International contacts functioned for Hahn as platforms for information exchange and the display of GDR culture abroad, but also as fodder for pleading his case for expansion and competition with the local authorities. However, it is clear that these contacts were seen as colleagues by Hahn, rather than as competition – colleagues with whom he could discuss problems related to the history of photography and collecting and generally exchange ideas. In turn, his colleagues abroad clearly valued Hahn’s view from Dresden to the West and considered him part of a photography museum community.

In 1968, Hahn even attempted to gain permission from the Cultural League to participate in Karl Pawek’s upcoming 1968 ‘World Exhibition of Photography’ entitled Die Frau, or ‘The Woman’.81 The Cultural League’s response, from Heinz Bronowski in Berlin, was: ‘Helping with the Pawek show would be unthinkable for you as the museum’s director and as a member of the Central Commission for Photography’.82 Engaging in personal correspondence with colleagues, exchanging books and publishing an essay in West Germany all seem to have been possible for Hahn, perhaps because his museum was small, mostly undervalued and often ignored by the cultural leadership in the GDR. However, crossing the ideological border between East and West Germany to publicly participate in a West German exhibition was taking things too far for the Cultural League. Correspondence and publishing were Hahn’s routes toward international legitimization, but he was less successful at securing unlimited support for his endeavours in his home country’s cultural climate. His attempts at actual cultural diplomacy with the West were thwarted by a cultural apparatus that did not value the same view of photographic history and did not seek a relationship of mutual support and exchange with rivals such as Edward Steichen and Karl Pawek.

Conflict Around Walter Hahn’s International Relationships

Although the Cultural League made some moves toward fostering a relationship with Hahn and supporting the Museum, it was an on-again, off-again relationship at best. For example, Hahn’s efforts to create an advisory board of scholarly experts in historical and technical aspects of photography for the museum were thwarted and then taken over by the Cultural League and the Central Commission for Photography, who established their own board based in Berlin that rarely, if ever, held meetings.83 Conflicts arose among Central Commission members who took issue with Hahn’s lack of emphasis on the amateur leftist Worker Photographers of the 1920s and 1930s in his collections and display of photographic history within the museum.84 This lack of agreement between Hahn’s historical choices and the socialist mandate would cause him myriad problems and lead to debates throughout his career with figures such as former Worker Photographer Erich Rinka, hired by the Central Commission for Photography to undertake the project of ‘rehabilitating’ the Worker Photographers into their role as standard-bearers for the historical heritage of GDR photography.85 Rinka objected to the underrepresentation of Worker Photographers in Hahn’s collection, despite their primacy in the socialist context over ‘bourgeois’ photographers.86 Hahn responded with obvious frustration:

Naturally Worker Photography must be duly represented in the first German workers’ and farmers’ state. Who can help with this? Everyone is talking about the necessity again, but practically no one can help!! I had to search with great difficulty for all that is there now! For Heartfield, Richard Peter, Sen., Kurt Beck. I had two interviews with publishing company director H. Leopold. He sent me printed material, as did Eugen Heilig. Now, thank goodness, the ‘Working Group’ is there as the necessary advising collective desperately wanted by the museum, and they are already morally required – in my opinion – to provide help in building up this special area of the collection.87

Although attitudes in Berlin toward the Museum for Photography were apparently lukewarm, the Cultural League definitely became engaged when they learned of Hahn’s international communications. It seems that the Central Commission for Photography only became fully aware of, or perhaps only alarmed at, how extensive the museum’s collections and contacts throughout the world had become without the agency’s oversight in 1964. Heinz Bronowski of the Commission sent a memorandum calling for immediate measures in handling the situation of the museum’s current state of development. Boronowski cites the following missing requirements that needed to be remedied:

[A] conceptual statement, containing the projected goals of the work of the museum as an organic component of the function of the [Central Commission for Photography] in the area of the aesthetics and history of photography, a plan and a system in terms of the mode of operation … the clear demarcation of responsibility and managerial authority in all political-ideological questions and the resulting organizational consequences.88Among other measures, Boronowski demanded an immediate drafting by Hahn of a plan for future developments, including a list of all national and international contacts within the photography world and the nature of these communications.89 Hahn’s participation within the international photography museum community did seem to catch up with him in this case, and the boundaries of his freedom of movement in the GDR became clearer.

The list demands that Hahn clear all decisions and communications, aside from his personal publications, with the Commission in the future, and that the museum should essentially operate as subordinate to the Commission. In addition, Hahn would be expected to help with any and all requests for help with Commission publications, exhibitions, etc. The Museum for Photography was thus for all intents and purposes to function as a branch of the Central Commission for Photography in all but funding sources, which would remain under the control of the Scholarly Museums and local Dresden authorities. It seems that the museum was not a major concern for the Commission as long as Hahn was not actually attempting to circumvent GDR authorities to conduct cultural diplomacy with the West without their permission.

By 1968, Hahn had declared the forced advisory board a failure, as it had never taken shape after the initial push to replace his own board in 1963. As he related this to the editorial staff of Fotografie magazine:

Advisory board of the museum: Years ago I put such an institution together myself. There were good experts in it. After a year the Min[istry] demanded the dissolving of my creation and its replacement by a committee from the [Central Commission for Photography]. In and of itself, nothing objectionable. Only that the new board has existed for three or four years exclusively on paper! … What do I do now? I get a few good pieces of advice from well-versed people and move ahead with it as best as I can.90

In the more strongly worded version of a letter thanking the editor of the magazine Zeit im Bild, which was likely not sent, Hahn blamed the GDR’s most prominent photography scholar, Berthold Beiler, for holding up the development of the board:

Yes and now the board, the problem child! First I need to take a deep breath … First version under Prof. H[erneck] met 1 to 2 times a year. In Berlin they found this too slow. Dr. B[eiler] stepped into my place. About four years ago he wanted to discuss his membership list with me. Under Dr. B. the board has so far never met at all! But it’s my opinion that the [Central Commission for Photography] can’t have simply forgotten the museum in the meantime. In any case, I don’t see it as my job to play the perpetual nudge. I really need all my remaining strength to repeatedly get on with it.91

It appears, however, that the Commission was not consistently interfering or confrontational after 1964, but simply withdrew their attention and support.

Sometime in 1968, Walter Hahn came to the realization that the museum work put too much strain on him at the age of 76 and that he wished to retire and hand over leadership to a younger director in 1970.92 Hahn envisioned a successor who would take over from him at the end of the year, as well as having plans to expand the permanent exhibition and move the museum to a larger space. To Hahn, the logical move would be to unite the museum’s collections with the Art Museums of Dresden, whose Kupferstichkabinett contained a collection of early photographic materials, including daguerreotypes.93 This would also have fulfilled his initial wish that the Museum for Photography serve as an art museum for photography, rather than as a ‘scholarly museum’.

Much to Hahn’s dismay, plans began to take shape for his museum to be absorbed into the Polytechnical Museum Dresden under the leadership of museum director Fritz Leuschner. The Cultural League came vigorously to Hahn’s defense in the form of letters to various officials. However, this did not prevent Hahn’s most dreaded outcome. Upon his death in 1969, his work was essentially extinguished as an autonomous collection and institution. Despite discussions within the Central Commission for Photography in the 1970s and 1980s that cited the collapse of Hahn’s museum and attempted to marshal support for a new national photography museum, no other actual museum of photography would be established within the GDR during the Cold War period.94


In his essay on the formation of early public museums, Tony Bennett describes the structure and function of the museum using the concept of ‘The Exhibitionary Complex’.95 Bennett probes the Foucauldian idea of the disciplining institution, arguing that museums do not just operate as spaces of confinement, but also ‘[open] up objects to more public concepts of inspection and visibility’.96 However, the advent of the public museum, according to Bennett, also turned on displaying the nation and developing and conditioning a national public audience. As with early museums, national museums in the GDR were charged not only with displaying art, scientific objects and industrial products, but also with conditioning a national public audience within socialism. Ultimately, Walter Hahn’s Museum for Photography passed into obscurity after his death for a number of reasons. The greatest, however, was that his concept of photographic history did not square with the prevalent focus on leftist photography and socialist realism in the GDR that cultural authorities wanted to use to condition the populace.

The entrance of photography into the museum presented a uniquely challenging moment for the history of museum culture, as explored extensively in the 1980s by Christopher Phillips, Alan Sekula, Douglas Crimp et al.97 The medium confronted the unified art museum with objects that needed to be ‘tamed’ and ordered from the museum’s ‘judgment seat’.98 Within the GDR, the threat of photography entering the art museum and the reason it was only allowed to do so openly in the late 1970s and 1980s is rooted in the threat of breaking the socialist historical narrative favoured by cultural authorities. In ‘The Traffic in Photographs’, Alan Sekula cites the ‘chattering ghosts’ of bourgeois science and art that haunted photography’s entry into the hallowed space of the art museum.99 In East Germany, photography was similarly haunted by bourgeois culture as represented by the West and by its own German past inclusive of non-leftist traditions. Hahn’s desire to collect beyond the realm of amateur Worker Photography and to unite his project with an international community beyond the socialist/communist world brought these chattering ghosts, quietly, in under the radar.

The Museum for Photography was undervalued as an institution in Dresden, and perhaps Hahn’s complaining and wilful contact with the West alienated him from the cultural leadership of the GDR, his only, albeit inconsistent, supporters. As Wolfgang Hesse puts it: ‘The collapse of the Museum of Photography … is not only the fault of political constraints and antagonisms around its institutionalization … but also of the dominance of conventional patterns of interpretation’.100 Hahn’s divergence from the cultural priorities of the Cultural League and Central Commission for Photography doomed his apparent efforts at cultural diplomacy aimed at the West from the start. The museum’s divergence from the model of non-artistic ‘official’ photographic culture has led to a historiographical situation where our narratives must be complicated in order to find a way to discuss it, which I would argue is a productive problem.

The museum’s historical and historiographical disappearance has more to do, as Hesse says, with ‘patterns of interpretation’ in the past and in the present. Despite this being ultimately a story of a failed project, the wide-reaching networking and exchange within an international network of photography museum professionals and collectors achieved by Hahn in his short career as museum director represent a remarkable, and perhaps unique, instance of the transit of photographic images, literature and ideas during the Cold War.