Summary

This black and white shadowy photograph is split into two scenes connected by a horizontal row of spooling holes that indicate they are negatives on a strip of photographic film. To the left, an unrecognisable female figure walks towards the camera along a sheltered boardwalk resembling a pier. Beside her is a body of water where a boat is moored. Though other figures are visible in the background, the woman is very much alone, distanced from them as much as she is from the photographer. To the right, what appears at first to be a mirror image of the left-hand scene is in fact a different, darker shot. The circular framing of the two images draws attention to the artistic eye of Roh himself.

As an exploration of visual oppositions, this photograph demonstrates Roh’s absorption of the theories of the art historian Heinrich Wölfflin under whose supervision Roh completed his doctorate in Munich in 1920. Wölfflin made his name analysing the development of Renaissance art according to a series of oppositional transitions, for example from a focus on line to a focus on painterly texture. Roh went on to apply this approach to the art of his contemporaries such as Georg Schrimpf and Rolf Escher, whose cool, reasoned style he contrasted with the passions and subjectivity of German expressionism. By the late 1920s, however, Roh had begun writing about photography too, and was soon experimenting with the medium himself.

This untitled photograph is one result of Roh’s experimentation. While the mechanical nature of photography is openly acknowledged by the recognisable strip of spooling holes, the artistry of the framing highlights Roh’s own role in the creation of this image. The sinister appearance of the negative, the ghostly figure of the single woman and the severe cropping that denies apprehension of the subject matter: all are visual effects that Roh chose himself. Similarly, the composition was carefully conceived by Roh, including the isolation of the female figure and the dramatic perspective of the boardwalk. Untitled can therefore be said to illustrate Roh’s belief – articulated in his 1929 essay ‘Mechanism and Expression’ – that while photography represented an important development in twentieth-century artistic production, expressive intervention remained key to an image’s power.

Further reading
Franz Roh, Foto-Auge: 76 Fotos der Zeit / Photo-Eye: 76 Photos of the Period, Tübingen 1929.
Ulrich Bischoff (ed.), Franz Roh: Kritiker, Historiker, Kuenstler, exhibition catalogue, Staatsgalerie Moderner Kunst, Munich 1990.
Virginia Heckert, Franz Roh: Photography and Collage from the 1930s, exhibition catalogue, Ubu Gallery, New York 2006, p.24.

Lucy Watling
January 2012