Brecht’s still surprisingly neglected book was essentially a photo-essay comprising of 69 images or photographic fragments that Brecht had collected since being in exile in the 1930s. Most of the images refer to the Second World War – there are images of Hitler, Churchill cast as a gangster, bombed out British cities, and dead Japanese soldiers – and the sources of the majority of the images were the mainstream press, with many pictures taken from the American magazine Life. The book was both a Marxist critique of the war, and a pedagogic manual on how to properly read photographs. Brecht was extremely sceptical of photography’s straight-forward truth-telling capabilities, and critical of the dangerous ideological instability of the uncaptioned image. Unsurprisingly, the version of photographic realism that he attempted to articulate in his War Primer was a much more complicated interventionist and collaborative kind of realism – one in which the spectator of each photograph was forced to experience the kind of alienation and estrangement that was so crucial to Brecht’s theatre. This demanded an equally nuanced kind of reading, which Brecht termed ‘complex seeing’.
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Published in Photoworks Issue 17, 2011
Commissioned by Photoworks