the Höcker album

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To continue our discussion of photography and the real, I thought I’d point to the Höcker album, a collection of 116 photographs documenting the lives of S.S. officers at Auschwitz during the summer and fall of 1944 and collected in an album belonging to Karl Höcker, the adjutant to camp commandant. I think this album allows us to further pursue some of the questions raised by Hoepker’s 9/11 photo, particularly those having to do with the kind of moral reaction the photo elicits in the viewer.

This passage from Friend (referenced by Mateusz) prompted me to think of the Höcker photos:
The picture seemed to capture and invite complacency. It lacked any sense of outrage, a response Hoepker believed the background ought to have elicited from any civilized person seated in the foreground. It didn’t meet any of our standard expectations of what a September 11 photography should look like. “The idyllic quality turned me off,” he says. “It was too pretty. Maybe we didn’t need to see that, then. Maybe I wasn’t sure it would stir the wrong emotions [in the viewer] (Friend, 2006: 142-3).

The Höcker photos portray S.S. officers taking part in official ceremonies, such as a hospital opening and a funeral, and engaged in social activities, including a hunting trip, a banquet, and excursions to Solahütte, a retreat 30 kilometers south of Auschwitz. In one series of photographs the officers are joined at Solahütte by a group of Helferinnen, young women who worked for the S.S. as communications specialists. In none of the photographs do any prisoners, or other overt signs of the acts typically associated with the name Auschwitz, appear.

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[The entire album is available here]

What I find interesting about the discussion surrounding this album, in connection to our discussion of the 9/11 photo, is how much the experience of viewing the album is talked about in terms of horror and moral outrage — the horror and moral outrage of viewing an Auschwitz photo that bears no apparent signs of Auschwitz. It’s precisely the “idyllic quality” — that which turns Hoepker off of his 9/11 photo — that is productive of the horror experienced in viewing the Höcker photos. “The album’s effect is discordant. The people it depicts are engaged in the greatest mass murder ever committed, yet its principal impression is of pleasure; nor do the people portrayed look like villains,” writes Alec Wilkinson in his New Yorker article “Picturing Auschwitz” [registration required]. “If you take it out of context, it very much seems like a vacation album” (Rebecca Erbelding, the archivist at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum who initially received the album).

There is an interesting play of photo, referent, and context going on with this album, one which perhaps offers another angle from which to reconsider ‘the real’ to which we speak of photography referring. How do we make sense of an act of viewing that is so much about knowing a context that lies beyond what is being seen? What work is invovled in viewing a photo of women eating blueberries as a document of atrocity?

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