Perspectives Pride

Germaine Krull’s Queer Vision

Once the toast of Paris, avant-garde photographer Germaine Krull held a mirror to queer life in interwar France.

Aug 17, 2021

A black and white photograph of two nude women in a loving embrace.

The photographer Germaine Krull is little known outside of specialist circles today, but in 1928 she was the toast of Paris. Her avant-garde photographs of the city filled the pages of VU, a magazine known for its dynamic spreads and modern, bold aesthetic. Krull was one of its signature photographers. She shot sailors on the docks, piles of curios at the flea market, dancers at the Moulin Rouge. As both photojournalist and art photographer, Krull was one of the leading lights of the Parisian photography scene. Her pictures hung in the Salon de l’Escalier, a major exhibition of modernist photography, and over the next few years, her work featured in exhibitions across Europe. By 1931, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin used Krull as an example of photography's potential in his celebrated essay “Little History of Photography.” [1]

“You are a reforming mirror. You and the darkroom [chambre noire] obtain a new world, a world that has passed through [the camera’s] workings and a soul.”

—Jean Cocteau

Krull, born in Posen (then Germany, now Poznán, Poland), wound up in Paris after an itinerant childhood, a few years’ study of photography in Munich, and a series of political embroilments that sound like the stuff of fiction. Banned from Bavaria for aiding a Bolshevik emissary’s attempted escape through the Alps, she was later deported from the Soviet Union as a supposed counterrevolutionary.

After a stint in Berlin, where she ran her own photography studio, she made her way to Paris. There, she published her photo book Métal in 1928 and began to receive attention alongside other practitioners of new, assertively modern photographic styles such as Man Ray and André Kertész.

With Métal, Krull turned her lens on the soaring structures of industrial Europe: Rotterdam’s railroad bridge De Hef, Marseille’s Pont Transbordeur, a number of nameless industrial cranes, factory machinery, and, most recognizably, the Eiffel Tower. [2] The portfolio bore the subtitle “métaux nus” (bare metals), and critics have often likened these metallic bodies to the nude photographs she made around the same time. In both cases, Krull got close to her subjects, dislocating them from their environments. In Métal, Krull rendered the familiar form of the Eiffel Tower nearly unrecognizable. She tended to shoot the tower from beneath, its iron lattices stretching vertiginously upward, such that the monument’s iconic shape is lost.

Left: Germaine Krull (French (born Poland), 1897–1985). Tour Eiffel, 1928. Gelatin silver print, 13.6 × 9.0 cm (5 1/4 x 3 5/8 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Ford Motor Company Collection, Gift of Ford Motor Company and John C. Waddell, 1987 (1987.1100.54). Right: Germaine Krull (French (born Poland), 1897–1985). [Nude], 1928–29. Gelatin silver print, 23.4 x 17.1 cm (9 1/4 x 6 3/4 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gilman Collection, Purchase, Anonymous Gift, 2005 (2005.100.559)

In an untitled nude photograph from 1928 or ’29, she deployed a similar approach, keeping the camera fixed on an unclothed torso twisting off toward the edge of the frame with upturned face cut off at mid-cheek. The dramatic play of shadow and light renders the figure’s gender indistinct. Whether focused on a living subject or an architectural one, Krull’s camera resists the viewer’s urge to name and categorize.

Before Krull became a famous Parisian photojournalist, she made a series of enigmatic pictures of female couples. In 1924, while living in Berlin, Krull shot a portfolio of eleven photographs entitled Les amies (French for “the friends,” specifically denoting female friends). The photographs depict a pair of women in stages of gradual undress, eventually left only in their stockings, the rest of their flesh laid bare. In the narrative that unfolds from image to image, the two women move between sofa and floor: the shape of their union shifts but their bodies remain interlocked. The images were risqué enough that they received little attention during Krull’s lifetime—perhaps a bit too lewd for fine art display, and yet not quite pornographic either. Certainly though, these photographs are representations of queer desire; they were made by an artist who desired women herself.

Germaine Krull (French (born Poland), 1897–1985). Les Amies, ca. 1924. Gelatin silver print,16 x 20.79 cm (6 3/8 x 8 1/4 in.). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel and Jennifer and Joseph Duke Gift, 2001 (2001.398)

In her memoirs, Krull describes the relationship she had with a woman (perhaps pseudonymously) referred to as “Elsa,” noting, “We would have laughed if someone had labeled us lesbians.” At the time, Krull and Elsa were both married to men, and Krull frames the affair as an exception. She calls Elsa “the only woman I have loved and who has loved me.” In another passage, she seems to contradict herself, stating, “I never loved a woman.” But she does not altogether dismiss this relationship: “With Elsa, the joy of feeling united was so great. … She was so much mine that the physical question did not count.” [3]

One of the Les amies photographs in The Met collection shows two women wrapped in an amorous knot, so engaged in their pursuit of pleasure that their faces remain almost entirely obscured. This elision of the models’ faces is, perhaps, an effect of modesty or concealing their identity, but it also produces a sense of intense absorption in the sexual act—despite performing for a camera, the two women seem concerned only with each other. The photographs offer a vision of queer feminine sexuality in its most visible form.

Krull’s straightforward depiction of these female lovers is all the more striking given that she took these photographs at a time when lesbians were often imagined to be invisible—or at the very least, imperceptible. In the interwar years of the 1920s and ’30s, and especially in France, anxieties ran high about precisely this problem. If lesbians could not be identified on sight, how could they be apprehended? How could the dangers of rampant female sexuality be curtailed with lesbians walking around Paris in plain sight, undetected? These worries occupied novelists, social scientists, and sexologists alike, as Carolyn J. Dean describes in her book, The Frail Social Body. [4]

Krull, unlike her (largely male) contemporaries, seems to have had no trouble locating queer female sexuality, or representing it. On the contrary, the Les amies photographs adopt a direct, frontal view of the two lovers. Krull’s models become almost indistinguishable over the course of the series. This compositional strategy suggests a particularly queer eroticization of sameness, very different from the conception of a butch-femme dyad imaged by Krull’s contemporary Brassaï in his photographs of the Parisian lesbian bar Le Monocle. But the representation of queerness as a kind of doubling accords with popular French conceptions of the so-called sapphist as a “female Narcissus,” as Nicole Albert puts it in her 2005 study of the lesbian phantasm at the fin-de-siècle, Lesbian Decadence. [5]

A poster by the Austrian artist Raphael Kirchner for Wiener Illustrirte Frauen Zeitung (ca. 1900), depicting a young woman kissing her reflection in the mirror.

Just as Narcissus gazed upon his own likeness, the lesbian often appeared in popular representations gazing upon another woman as a kind of mirror image of herself. Mirrors, long linked with feminine vanity, became a convenient shorthand for the idea that lesbian desire is the ultimate narcissism. This allowed for artists and writers to simultaneously denounce sexual immorality and the eroticization of that sin. Contemporary illustrations in magazines and advertisements, for instance, offered up sensuous sights of women embracing through, near, or against mirrors. The mirror’s reflection plays up the autoeroticism of self-regard, and supposedly of sapphism itself. Meanwhile, literary accounts of lesbianism in the interwar period frequently staged scenes of erotic encounters in mirrored rooms. [6] Such spaces—be they brothels, nightclubs, or private bedrooms—facilitated both voyeurism and spatial disorientation.

Nor was sapphism the mirror’s only resonance in the 1920s. Contemporary critics frequently compared photography to a mirror. The poet and polymath Jean Cocteau, for instance, told Krull of her art: “You are a reforming mirror. You and the darkroom [chambre noire] obtain a new world, a world that has passed through [the camera’s] workings and a soul.” [7] Here, he plays upon the double meaning present in the French “chambre noire,” which refers at once to the literal darkroom where photographs are developed and to the camera obscura, which we might think of as a stand-in for the enterprise of photography itself. As Cocteau would have it, Krull herself was the mirror, not photography. Armed with her camera, she had the power not only to depict reality but to transform it.

[1] Walter W. Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” in Selected Writings: 1927–1934, ed. Howard Eiland, Michael W. Jennings, and Gary Smith, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 507–28. Return

[2] Kim Sichel, Making Strange: The Modernist Photobook in France (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020), 19. Return 

[3] Germaine Krull, La vie mène la danse, ed. Françoise Denoyelle (Textuel, 2015), 179–180. Return

[4] Carolyn J. Dean, The Frail Social Body: Pornography, Homosexuality, and Other Fantasies in Interwar France (Berkeley, C.A.: University of California Press, 2000). Return

[5] Nicole G. Albert, Lesbian Decadence: Representations in Art and Literature of Fin-de-Siècle France, trans. Nancy Erber and William A. Peniston (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 241–242. Originally published as Albert, Saphisme et décadence dans Paris fin-de-siècle (Paris: Martinière, 2005). Return

[6] Dean, The Frail Social Body, 193. Return

[7] “Vous êtes un miroir reformant. Vous et la chambre noire obtenez un monde neuf, un monde qui a traversé des mécanismes et une âme.” Jean Cocteau, Jean Cocteau to Germaine Krull, April 1930. Quoted in Pierre MacOrlan, Germaine Krull (Paris: Librairie Gallimard, 1931), 16. Return

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