April Fool’s photojournalism proves no joke in Weimar Germany

What do an annual prank holiday of ambiguous origins, the evolution of photojournalism and mass media in relation to conceptions of modernity and constructs of the ‘New Woman’ in interwar Weimar Germany have in common? Quite a bit, according to University of Tennessee-Knoxville Professor Daniel Magilow’s lecture.

The talk, titled “The New Woman on April Fools: Photography, Photomontage, and the Rhetoric of Objectivity in the Weimar Republic,” was every bit as specific and thickly conceived as its premise would suggest, but ultimately delivered a big picture synthesis that made perfect sense, even if it was an unconventional angle.

Magilow’s slideshow opened with an American newspaper amusingly commenting on a German newspaper’s use of manipulated photographs as April Fool’s Day pranks, specifically an image of a quadruple-decker bus that apparently inspired letters to the paper from those concerned about how it would fit under bridges. Members of the German press routinely implemented such a technique, with clarifications not issued until the next month. The same tricks found a perch in German Illustrierten, publications Magilow compared loosely to LIFE magazine, where illusions crafted by photographic technology were juxtaposed against unironically laudatory articles praising the field of photojournalism and its emergent professionals.

For Magilow, these contradictions embodied a larger tension between the trust inherent in the technology and methodology of photojournalism and the ability of those same tools to erode the borders between what is true and what is false. Each prank photograph inspires a portion of its audience to fall for it, while making others skeptical of photos that are, in fact, genuine.

A 1928 April Fool’s Day issue of the Illustrierten Uhu advertises a machine developed by an American-German scientist to induce overnight weight loss, playing off of anxieties over body image and an association between the United States and fantastic innovation. Another suggests that famous 18th century Thomas Gainsborough painting The Blue Boy is actually a portrait of a girl by superimposing a nude model beneath the figure’s clothes as if it were an x-ray. This manipulation plays on two dynamics, according to Magilow: the highly publicized debates in the art world over the use of technology to authenticate paintings rather than relying on the judgment of traditional elites, and the shifting gender roles embodied by the German Neue Frau (New Woman). Because audiences are primed to trust technology that claims to reveal the hidden truth of paintings, and are familiar with a fluid construct of masculinized femininity, the illusion is able to work in the context of a flip-through magazine even though the premise would fall apart under any scrutiny.

Yet another image plays on mixing the athleticism associated with modern dance (Magilow drew an analogy to the Rockettes) and classical ballet, by depicting an impressive but impossible formation of three dancers stacked upon each other, with each balancing on only the outstretched hand of the another. Still another portrays an absurd vehicle that is a hybrid of a boat and a train – except that the image is entirely real. The inability of readers to distinguish which marvels are fake and which are not in a medium that simultaneously celebrated itself for its journalistic achievements creates a self-referentiality, Magilow argued, that does not necessarily need to resolve itself; the tensions it illuminates are grounded in the lived experiences of Germans in an age of Weimar mass media.

The German Illustrierten were regarded as disposable in their time, and Magilow’s lecture deliberately set out to rehabilitate their value in the context of the society in which they were produced. Although the magazines would be Nazified after the fall of the Weimar Republic, the conventions they used were enduring enough that the Nazis (badly) used the techniques of the Weimar period to spread their propaganda. These conventions were emblematic of an era’s struggle with modernity, technology and the blurring lines between what could and couldn’t be true. April Fool’s Day pranks are certainly humorous above anything else, but their implications for a larger cultural context make for a fascinating academic study of Weimar Germany.

Professor Daniel Magilow discussed the photograph’s pretension towards truth during the Weimar period. Photo courtesy of the Sandspur.