Fotograf Magazine

A Dictionary of Photographers from 1900 until the Present Day

Filling a gap in the book market is the goal this new dictionary of photography out of Germany has set for itself. The book, Das Lexikon der Fotografen, contains entries on 550 European and North American photographers representing the world of modern photography. Hanz- Michael Koetzle conceived the dictionary on the basis of a  landmark  article by Paul Strand published in Camera Work in 1917 (which might perhaps lead one to think that the time frame established in the title should be reconsidered), in which the author champions the purity of the photographic medium. A good way to become familiar with the dictionary is provided by the text boxes containing information on selected trends, magazines, terms from the photography market, museums, collections, archives, exhibitions, schools and technical approaches considered significant in the history of 20th century photography.

There are less photographers included in this dictionary than in the two most comprehensive dictionaries published in the eighties: the Encyclopédie internationale des photographes  and  Contemporary  Photographers.  The former contains about 1,600 biographies, but it covers a longer period of time – from 1839 to 1985. The first edition of Contemporary Photographers, published in 1982, contains  approximately  650  entries that relate only to photographers that were either still living or relevant when the book went to print or photographers that are to be counted among the most important representatives of previous generations. It was to be reissued in updated editions every five years (fulfilled in 1988 and 1995). In Contemporary Photographers, the number of exhibitions and books listed under each photographer was limited to ten, whereas in the new German dictionary the information provided is reduced to a bare minimum and readers who want to go into greater depth are referred to a bibliography. In both the Encyclopédie and Contemporary Photographers, each photographer represented is given equal voice: one picture per text. Moreover, in  the  Encyclopédie  internationale  des  photographes,  each author is allotted exactly one page. In the new Lexikon, however, we find some names with no accompanying photographs and others for which up to nine have been provided.

Each entry is formatted in the following manner: under the author’s name we find information on when and where the author was born; next, we are given a brief evaluation and a catalogue of his work, followed by more detailed biographical information. Then the entry ends with a quote from  a relevant authority (a historian of art or photography, a commentator or critic specialised in the photographer’s work) that summarises the photographer’s contribution to the field and a selection of the most important among his exhibitions and books on him, as well as a note on how he has been evaluated in previous encyclopediae of photography. This information, which is organised visually using differing font sizes and weights, makes it possible for the reader to get his bearings quickly.

One of the first things the reader notices while thumbing through the Lexikon is the curious manner of dealing with the illustrations accompanying each entry: more than half of them are reproductions of the pages of the books and magazines they were published in. The title pages of important books and magazines were scanned in a similar manner. The criterion behind  Koetzle’s  decision  is  stated  in  the  book’s  introduction:  it  was a reflection of the fact that photographic images were communicated predominantly  through  the printed  media in the 20th century.  In  some cases, this approach is effective – as for example in the case of Photography Sees the Surface, by Jaromír Funke and Ladislav Sutnar, an extraordinary example of photographic functionalism and New Objectivism in Czechoslovak bookmaking. In most instances, however, the pictures end up being reproduced in dimensions that are too small and their effectiveness is thus diminished.

Koetzle devotes a lot of attention to photographers from northern and southern Europe, areas which he deems to have been neglected in previous dictionaries. He also furnishes information on widely discussed figures who are nonetheless absent from such dictionaries (from the Düsseldorf School to ‘New Colour’). The author also addresses a shortcomings of Contemporary Photographers which can be chalked up to its provenance: it places too great an emphasis on American photography. For Koetzle, the distinction between photography which is meant for use on one hand and free-form creation on the other is ill-conceived. For this reason, he devotes space in the dictionary to all photographers who have enriched the field by means of their graphic vocabulary or the themes they touch upon. Nonetheless, he does not include authors for whom photography was only one field of expression among others, photographers who use digital techniques or otherwise manipulate their photographs, or those who attained a short-lived success. Neither does he take into account forms of art in which photography is one element used alongside others (land art, happenings, performance art, conceptual art,  etc.).

Bearing these criteria in mind, we can understand why the Lexikon does not include certain Czech artists such as Alfons  Mucha  or  Jan  Saudek. There is no good reason, however, for the absence of names like Emila Medková, Eugen Wiškovský, Eva Fuková or Tono Stano. On the other hand, the Lexikon is the first international dictionary of photography to include  such Czech authors as Ladislav Sutnar, Pavel BaÀňa and Jitka Hanzlová.

One might also find fault with a number of formal  defficiencies  in  Koetzle’s book: neither the place nor the year that mark the origin of the dictionary are evidenced in it and several errata have slipped by the proofreaders (taken at random: instead of ·volík we read Svolík and instead  of Baňka we read Banka, even though Viktor Kolář is printed correctly). In the end though, despite its imperfections, the book Hanz-Michael Koetzle spent five years working is worthy of merit. It is an admirable piece of work. This high-quality publication, printed with great care on scratchboard paper, will doubtless become a useful reference for every lover of   photography.

Dagmar Čujanová