Saturday, June 23, 2012

John Heartfield’s Dioptric Camera.

This photograph of John Heartfield’s modified Linhof Technica from the permanent exhibition at the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin seems to indicate that Heartfield may have used a Descartes inspired dioptric camera to create the powerfully revealing photographs which, appearing in weekly German illustrated magazines during the 1930’s, helped to undermine Nazi propaganda.

Judging from the photo it appears as though Heartfield did not extract the bull crystalline from the interior humours as Descartes describes in his fifth discourse. This may account for the dark and oneiric formal quality of Heartfield’s images and perhaps even for slight distortions in perspective and scale.

It is not surprising to discover that Heartfield’s photographs, which marked a distinct departure from traditional photography, were created using a bull crystalline camera. Heartfield engineered a new system of representation that radically opposed Physiognomy, the fundamental principal behind faith in the camera's ability to decipher and transcribe truth from the surface appearance of things. In contrast Heartfield’s system captured the intrinsic and otherwise invisible truths buried beneath surface.

Physiognomy was primarily concerned with the human face. The idea that the human face could be intelligible excited scientists and philosophers alike. Such an x-ray into the human soul could also function as a biological lie detector, a barometer of emotional status or as a beacon for psychological disorder. In his famous manifesto, Ich schneide und nähe Gesichter für ein Leben, John Heartfield writes "Physiognomy has taught us that if a man has a hard and downward bending nose of great length then he possesses an arrogant soul, so I will break his nose and push it upwards towards the sky to make him humble".

The photographs below show a comparison of the two opposing systems of representation at work. Alphonse Bertillon applied the fundamental principles of physiognomy to portraiture. His detailed system of anthropometry was designed to objectively discern the face of evil and to distinguish it from the face of innocence without being seduced by beauty, power and stature.

Bertillon’s system did not prove to be terribly efficient at exposing maniacal dictators who murdered and tortured millions of people, but found much more success in revealing the potential criminality of poor French citizens before their crimes had been committed.

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