For some time now, private photo albums have been accepted as historical sources, even if they are sometimes described as bulky “against scientific interpretation,” as Cord Pagenstecher already noted. Again and again, however, objections are found to the use of photographs or even photo albums for historical representations and interpretations. Sometimes, reasons for poor quality such as blurring or insufficient image composition are cited, but also arguments about a lack of background knowledge.
Of course, all these objections have their justification. On the other hand, photo albums, if they are available, should definitely be used for historical analysis. The following can be listed as reasons for this:
As currently created narratives are increasingly shaped and underpinned by images, the presentation of historical narratives is under strong compulsion to provide visual encores as well. Events of the past can be presented more vividly, i.e. more memorably, if they can be illustrated, which undoubtedly, it should be added, also implies interpretations.
Visual sources seem particularly valuable when addressing under-researched, neglected, or taboo periods of history.
This is also the case in the example chosen here, as will be explained below.
The photo album at hand is a compilation of own photographs made by the owner of the album, of prints that had been made in the local drugstore. Apart from a few exceptions, where a person present has pressed the shutter release upon request, all photographs have apparently been taken by the owner and also arranged in the album shortly thereafter. It is thus a self-constructed visual presentation of the everyday world, the school class and friendships, in short, representations of the peer group. In a way, this private photo album can be understood as a precursor of today’s visual presentations and self-presentations, for example on Instagram or Tiktok.
Schoolchildren taking photographs were not unusual in Germany in 1930. The manufacturer Agfa had already employed a “cultural representative for school work” since the mid-1920s and gave away inexpensive cameras to schoolchildren in a campaign in 1930. Thus, the pursuit of amateur photography was strongly propagated, especially in upper school classes. It is interesting to note that this hobby affected Jews and girls alike. These were also the years in which women increasingly became active as professional photographers. To what extent the involvement with photography among young people in Germany stood out on a European scale due to the commitment of the Agfa company cannot be said for the time being.
In addition to the album by Rita Lax (born 1915) with photos from the period 1930-1933, the author has other albums and photo collections from the same period. What they all have in common is that they were made by Jewish youths in East Prussia or Memelland. These are albums by Manfred Flatow (b. 1925) from Königsberg and George Birman (b. 1921) from Memel as well as photo series by Hans-Georg Leiserowitz (b. 1914) from Königsberg and Eva Maidenbaum (b. 1922) from Memel. The synopsis facilitates certain classifications of various phenomena, of which only two will be mentioned below, and enables more general conclusions to be drawn.
About the album by Rita Lax: The protagonist was born in northern East Prussia, close to the border with the then Tsarist empire, and grew up in this region, which was first administered by the League of Nations under the newly coined name of “Memelland” after the Peace of Versailles in 1920, until Lithuanian freedmen invaded in 1923 and the region was annexed to the young Republic of Lithuania as an autonomous region. Rita Lax was Jewish, and in 1937 she married a stateless man, also Jewish, who had a certificate for Palestine and was looking for a wife to leave the country. Together the couple emigrated to Tel Aviv.
The Lax family lived near Heydekrug, where Rita also attended high school and graduated in 1934: she belonged to the small Jewish community of the district town, but there were only a few Jewish children and young people. Rita’s family belonged to the middle class. She seems to have received her camera, probably an Agfa box, around 1930. Apparently, her photographs also begin at this time. In retrospect, it is not possible to reconstruct how Rita got her camera. It could be that at her high school, the Herderschule in Heydekrug, there was a teacher who was enthusiastic about photography and who motivated the students. It may also have been a gift from a relative. Based on the Lax family estate, however, it is relatively clear that Rita was the only one in the household who took photographs.
What can be seen in Rita’s photo album? It is a girl’s world, especially on the first pages. The photographs show classmates in threes and fours, in the garden, in the veranda, at the open window in changing groupings and various poses, whereby the representation of the various summer dresses also plays a role. Later, there are shots at bridges, which were located on small walking paths. Apparently, photography was first “tried out” and practiced in the girls’ group. Parents and relatives play a strongly subordinate role, they are fixed only on later photographs. From this, however, one must not necessarily conclude that Rita had not photographed them. It can only be stated that they did not find their way into her album in the first year of her contact with the camera.
It was not until the next summer that photos were found in which boys could also be seen. Apparently, the photographer now had enough self-confidence to go out into the school public with her apparatus. These are mainly photographs showing sporting events. Here we also find a group shot of the boys of Rita’s school class. It should be noted that, in addition to the general enthusiasm for sports in those years, a special enthusiasm for sports was sparked by the preparations for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
In addition, there are also photos that are often found in all the albums and collections mentioned above for comparison – the so-called front door pictures, where individuals or small groups are standing in front of a door. This background usually plays no role, it resulted situationally, because one went to photograph outside to take advantage of the better light conditions.
The conclusion of this episode are photos of a class trip by ship to Gdansk, which must have taken place around 1933, which was a big event at that time. The photographer has fixed here various sights and monuments. A focus is on shots from the ship’s voyage, with classmates on the deck, as well as bathing scenes of the boys at the end of the Gdansk program. This photographic episode concludes with a group photo, a picture of the class, obviously taken by Rita.
All these descriptions seem to sound rather general to banal. At this point two reservations, which are generally expressed on the occasion of the use of private photo albums as historical sources, shall be named and refuted: On the one hand, there are opinions that the images are mainly fixations of ephimeric events, which are rather meaningless in retrospect. On the other hand, it is argued that only certain photographic motifs and details are picked out to underline or illustrate already known historical facts.
Undoubtedly, in a photo album, even more so of teenagers, there are pictures of many unspectacular encounters. In the present album by Rita Lax, she shows visits by friends to her parents’ property and walks together in the surrounding area. These motifs, which seem very unspectacular in detail, tell of practiced habits through their recurrence of place and persons and thus provide a good insight into the protagonist’s life at that time. These details are all the more remarkable because her biography was later essentially shaped by the political events of the Nazi era and her emigration, and the pictorial phase of her youth was forgotten. The analysis of a photo album, which is understood as an autobiographical source, presupposes a holistic view of the object.
At the beginning, a historical context for the photographer, her location and her biographical details are to be described. Then the sequence and arrangement of the motifs (also taking into account later produced blanks) must also be considered. Now, how is this album relevant as a historical source? On the one hand, many details of life in the interwar period in the Memelland are depicted. Due to flight, expulsion and subsequent Sovietization, numerous contemporary testimonies have been lost. In this respect, the album can also contribute to supplement narratives of this politically complicated period. Another insight, however, lies outside the actual pictorial motifs.
Rita’s photos depicting her with classmates end with the trip to Gdansk. The group picture of her graduation in 1934 inserted here is neither in her album nor in her estate. It may be a coincidence, but it may also have valid reasons. The photographs in the album do not begin again until about 1936, when Rita brought her future husband into her parents home.
Life in the meantime could not find out anything. The fact is, however, that after the trip to Gdansk in 1933 a break can be found in the album. After that, there are only photos of the family or Jewish friends. Non-Jewish persons no longer appear. In addition, it should be mentioned that in Rita’s class there was only one Jewish student (Benno Winkler) and the vast majority of the girls and boys photographed before 1933 were non-Jews.
Although National Socialist organizations were banned in the Memelland until the end of 1938, the mood in the region had apparently already adapted very early, which contradicts the reports of common contemporary witnesses. If we now compare the albums and photo collections mentioned at the beginning, we can see that only the photo collection of Hans-Georg Leiserowitz, who was one year older than Rita Lax, shows non-Jewish schoolmates, friends and people before 1933, as well as his teacher, who threw him out of his apprenticeship in the spring of 1933. Among the photos preserved by the younger amateur photographers, Manfred Flatow, George Birman, and Eva Maidenbaum, all taken after 1936, there are no shots showing non-Jews, even though Birmann and Maidenbaum still attended schools where Jewish students were the absolute minority until November 1938.
This record clearly illustrates that private photo albums, even if made by beginners, colloquially called “snapshooters,” can provide quite meaningful historical findings when comparative media and historical context are included.