The early 20th century was a period defined by speed and sight. The world was moving faster, and both photography and film had become sophisticated enough to capture it. Berlin was, in many ways, at the centre of this revolution in rapidity – as emphasised in filmmaker Walter Ruttman’s avant-garde masterpiece Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Großstadt– and it was one of the German capital’s native sons, Willi Ruge, who captured much of the excitement and anxiety spreading across Europe at the time.
As a war reporter and an air gunner, a commercial director and a businessman, Ruge was right at the heart of those new phenomena that made modernism what it was. Armed with his camera and risk-taking personality, he not only helped pioneer the role of the photojournalist with his agency Fotoaktuell, but brought a subjectivity to his work that would become characteristic of more creatively inclined photography as we see it today. An artist as well as an adventurer, he also spent much time in the studio, carrying out visual experiments related to the photographic avant-garde made famous by contemporaries such as Man Ray and the artists of “Neues Sehen” (New Vision).
Bringing together around 140 images – some of which have never been exhibited before – Fotoaktuell represents the latest in a series of exhibitions by C/O Berlin exploring historical photography. The show includes images created by Ruge whilst documenting critical events of the Weimar Republic such as the insurgencies in Upper Silesia, the Spartacist uprising and the French occupation of the Ruhr, as well as work made while travelling to South America and Africa for Illustritirte Zeitung in the 1930s, and photographs from his time as a “special-class photo reporter” in Europe and Africa during the Second World War.
Perhaps the most unique and significant area of his oeuvre, however, is the work he created in response to the relatively recent invention of the aeroplane. In addition to creating promotional films for the German aviation industry, he created many bracing action shots including the reportage photograph Myself During a Parachute Jump (1931), which seems a historical antecedent to the now ubiquitous images produced with GoPros by contemporary dare-devils. Living in the 21st century, it’s easy to look back and forget that the speed we now take for granted was once new and enthralling. As well as providing a fascinating historical record, seeing Ruge’s work helps us feel some of that excitement anew.
Ned Carter Miles
Willi Ruge: Fotoaktuell opens September 15, 2017, at 7pm at C/O Berlin at the Amerika Haus, Berlin. For more information: www.co-berlin.org
1. Adjusting the focus. From: The man behind the camera. A play of expressions in 16 pictures, 1930s © IBA Archive / KEYSTONE.