Two years before Walter Benjamin was forced to flee from the Nazis and leave his home country, he published “A Short History of Photography,” in which he concludes that the increasing portability of cameras would better enable photographers to capture “transitory and secret pictures” of humanity’s worst crimes and catastrophes. These images, however, would prove so shocking that public audiences would be at a loss for how to mentally process what they were seeing. “At this point,” suggests Benjamin, “the caption must step in” to clarify the contexts of these unsettling photographs and explain their significance to unwitting viewers. Benjamin never so much as hints at what, exactly, these photographs might depict, but nonetheless emphasizes that photographers, wielding an almost divine power in the technology’s documentary authenticity, are responsible for putting words to these images so that people might fully comprehend the injustices they reveal: “Is it not the task of the photographer, descendant of the augurs and haruspices,” asks Benjamin, “to uncover guilt and name the guilty in his pictures?”
A decade later, Dieter Keller (1909-1985) would be drafted into the German Wehrmacht and carry his own portable camera, a Soviet counterfeit Leica, to the war’s Eastern Front. After the tour, he smuggled the 35mm rolls of film back to his home in Stuttgart-Vaihingen and enlarged 201 prints. But oddly enough, Keller never published any of these pieces during his lifetime, even as he would go on to work extensively in the art industry and own one of the largest printing companies in Germany. Das Auge des Krieges (2020) puts 88 of Keller’s images into print for the first time, and the scenes it depicts are as liable to confirm Benjamin’s imperatives as to call them wholly into question.
If Keller himself wrote any words to accompany his war-time photographs, Das Auge des Krieges gives no indication. The volume offers little in the way of introduction to Keller’s work apart from a translation of the title (The Eye of War) and a note which specifies that the pictures were taken in Ukraine in 1941/42. The images that follow effect the semblance of a chronology, one which begins with Keller’s movement through Ukraine’s countryside, where German soldiers kill and remove local populations from farms and villages, and then continues with his time in more populated towns and cities where such missions resume.
Yet from the beginning it is apparent that Das Auge des Krieges is not meant to tell a war story—at least not in any conventional sense. Like any story, a war story requires protagonists and a storyline, and while many of Keller’s photographs befit its title with depictions of death, precarity, and ruin, they never refer to the combat occurring on the Eastern Front, his fellow soldiers, or any of the circumstances surrounding the images and their creation. If there were any swastikas or Mausers to be seen in Ukraine in 1941, you wouldn’t know it by looking at these photographs. Instead, Keller’s scenes unfold episodically—in loosely associated serials and recursive themes which are dictated by the whims of his curiosity rather than the kind of documentarian impulse that drives the making of almost all war photography. Keller’s portfolio thus troubles generic expectations not only by its lack of historical context, but also by his stirring contemplations of joy, vulnerability, temporality, and natural beauty as they occur alongside a genocidal conflict.
Considering the gravity of the subject matter and Keller’s talented eye, calling Das Auge des Krieges a scrapbook might sound disingenuous, even flippant, yet there seem few other ways to describe a book which meanders in and out of the violence of war while making few pretenses to reveal any particular “truths” to a conceived audience. As the book’s editor explains, Keller seems mostly content to use the medium of photography “as a key to his own reality processing and mental coping,” and what results are photographs that depict the raw realities of war while leaving much of it unseen, but which also add texture to a personal experience that would appall most viewers.
Some of the first photographs in the book exemplify these distinctive characteristics of Keller’s work. The burning houses appear at first from afar, almost as if spotted by chance from the road, but with each of the subsequent exposures, four of them in total, the photographer gradually nears their splotchy, swollen flames. The intensity of the fires suggests they were ignited not long before the photographs were taken, but the barren, unmarred ground surrounding the houses, coupled with the lack of people or other signs of life, produces a scene which is disconcertingly calm and disturbingly vacant. It may have been the case that inhabitants fled before the arrival of the forces, but the presence of the latter, undoubtedly beside and behind the viewfinder, haunts the margins of these images.
John Berger once wrote that what a photo captures is as important as what it occludes, and that the proper meaning of any photograph exists in how intensely we are made aware of the tension between absence and presence. As Das Auge des Krieges begins, what looms largest is not necessarily the conflagration these photographs make visible, but the viewer’s concern for the unseen victims and the possible fates they suffered before, during, or after the photo was taken.
The conventional wisdom of war photography would consider this series at best a missed opportunity and at worst a failure, given the fact that it evokes, rather than exhibits, a transgressive act of war and insinuates, rather than identifies, who was involved. Consequently, one might raise the concern that Keller took out his camera not because he was appalled by what he saw, but because he simply found the spectacle visually compelling. Such questions about the choices Keller made—what to photograph and when, among others—remain unanswered in Das Auge des Krieges, but linger incessantly on nearly every page.
As it would happen, this first series portends the book’s trajectory, as in the beginning Keller approaches many of his subjects from a distance, sometimes from the road or a rail car like a kind of beguiled, interloping tourist. Many of the initial images focus on wide-open landscapes of austere countryside and winding, tree-lined roads, timelessly beautiful photos which could well have been taken in many places at many times. The Ukrainian people rarely appear, but when they do, they are captured from afar and looking away from the camera. Death is not ignored but compartmentalized, addressed obliquely in the form of a severed foot lying in the dirt or the distended head of a horse decaying in the grass. These early images evince a photographer who is curious but cautious, taking in what comes along yet reluctant to invest himself fully. But such detachment proves fleeting.
The middle section of the book marks a pronounced shift in Keller’s aloof and distant attitude, and this is nowhere more evident than in his preoccupation with Ukraine’s buildings. In some two dozen images similar to the one above, Keller seems to indulge a fixation with the interplay of shades of light and dark with organic and geometric shapes. Many of the buildings are sturdy brick or stone structures with straight, angular lines and darkened windows, while others are tilting over, bombed out, or burned hollow. The shadows of trees often cleave across the walls with rounded trunks and splintering branches.
Keller never traffics in before-and-after sequences, but taken together, the photographs allude to what Henry James called the “prolonged outwardness” of war—that is, war’s propensity to threaten, disturb, and eviscerate all forms of interiority, drawing everyone and everything into unforgiving exposure. This is to say that domestic spaces and other private places of protection and comfort are regularly violated and destroyed in the fighting of all wars, but James’s remark also suggests that war lays bare the thoughts, convictions, and beliefs of those involved. Whatever Keller thought of the Nazi mission, and however much he may have hoped to limit his participation, he was inevitably drawn into it and perhaps wanted to reflect on his own complicity.
These two images, appearing consecutively in a series that features children, illustrate Keller’s coming face-to-face with the people of Ukraine and with his own role as occupier. The series is notable not so much for what it says about the children as for the insight they give into how Keller’s presence was perceived.
The first picture shown above is characteristic of the lot, as the children in the portfolio are usually seen about town and sport a relaxed demeanor when Keller snaps their portraits. Even those who look to be in dire straits, wearing ragged burlap coats and walking barefoot, appear to enjoy the attention. In this particular photograph, the girl is positioned to the left of the frame with her shadow casting to the right, demonstrating that Keller was likely no novice at portraiture. And with her eyes peering at something out of frame and her face exuding a confident smile, it also seems that Keller might have been talking to her to make her comfortable during the encounter. These unexpected personal interactions highlight a light-hearted innocence and vulnerability that seems out of place in Keller’s work, but they suggest that he felt empathy for the people subjected to his army’s occupation.
The second photograph, however, places him in a different light. The young girl, sitting just outside the threshold of what appears to be her home, turns warily and meets the arresting lens with a pleading gaze which indicts the photographer’s intrusion. Here, childlike vulnerability is no longer charming but perilous, and while we will never know what became of this girl or her family, her face expresses a fear which unequivocally recognizes the danger of Keller’s invasive presence. There are more gruesome images in Das Auge des Krieges, but I would argue there are few more terrifying.
The girl’s fear becomes all the more poignant when considered alongside what are ultimately Das Auge des Krieges most devastating photographs. There are eight images of murdered Ukrainians which appear predominantly in the latter part of the book. A few of the bodies wear clothes which suggest they might have been young soldiers, but most of the images unquestionably depict noncombatants. Estimates of how many civilians were killed by the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS in Ukraine—a large portion of which were Jews and Romas targeted in mass genocidal killings—range from one to four million. One of Keller’s photographs shows a mass grave with muddied bodies stacked carelessly on top of one another—the kind of image that has become familiar, if no less shocking, in historical accounts of Nazi atrocities. The other seven images, however, focus on singular victims whose bodies are lying in the grass or buried in shallow graves, indicating that they were likely not killed in the kinds of organized communal executions that occurred near larger cities, such as the Babi Yar massacre near Kiev, but in the routine murders committed in smaller villages and households when individuals were suspected of “partisan activities.”
The photograph above, however, acknowledges the limitations of this endeavor as the camera’s angle is awkwardly placed behind the victim’s right shoulder and focuses the frame on their hand. The viewer’s eye traces down the arm, which, at a point indistinguishable, turns into a mass of detritus that obscures the face. The photograph conveys feelings of desperation and loss under Nazi genocide, reminding us of their efforts to ensure that the fate of victims would go unwitnessed and unremembered. In the same moment, the exposed hand thwarts these efforts by making visible part of what was never meant to be seen.
These images epitomize what makes Das Auge des Krieges such a challenging book. Here, as elsewhere in his portfolio, Keller has a way of visualizing the atrocities of war in a manner that conveys more than what is visible. Yet at the same time, it is the many things which Keller keeps out of his work that give us pause. One could reasonably argue that Keller’s apparent reluctance to point his camera at his fellow soldiers, at any point, demonstrates his own complicity in the genocidal crimes of Operation Barbarossa, or that exercising his artistic sensibilities in the country his army was invading, using the people they killed, evinces a cynical desire to aestheticize the suffering of others. When it came to using the authenticity of the photograph “to uncover guilt and name the guilty,” as Benjamin insisted, it seems Keller largely failed.
In a short biography and timeline at the end of the book, editor Norbert Moos portrays Keller as a well-connected artist within the pre-war Bauhaus movement who surreptitiously captured the cruelty of a war in which he was forced to participate and works to distance Keller from the horrifying acts he photographed. For the years of 1941/42, the biographical timeline reads, “Deployment as a soldier on the Eastern Front, in the border area between Belarus and Ukraine. The photographs shown in this book were taken in secret, because German soldiers were prohibited from taking photos in the war zone. Details of Dieter Keller’s deployment in the German Wehrmacht are unavailable. Previous research indicates that he was assigned to administrative duties.” It is possible that Keller, for fear of reprisal, photographed only what he could. But the photographs themselves are far from covert snapshots, like those seen in the daring photographs taken by prisoners from within the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Indeed, what is perhaps most distressing about Keller’s work is that it records the violence of war en plein air with thoughtful, carefully considered compositions, highlighting the photographer’s proximity to Nazi crimes in a way that belies the editor’s benign characterization of his involvement.
We will likely never know what Dieter Keller did or didn’t do. But his occlusions may also be an opportunity to look at war photography differently. When we view photographs of Nazi atrocities replete with the iconographies and captions that identify them as crimes long since adjudicated, it becomes almost too easy to flip through them as if they were merely illustrations of a story we already know. Consequently, we are inclined to fall back on the familiar refrains which often accompany such images, expressing our shock, horror, and despair by describing these events of history as unthinkable or unimaginable. But as Giorgio Agamben reminds us, the Holocaust happened, so someone—actually many people—did think it, and we have the images, so someone, many people, imagined it. The Holocaust was exceptional and unique in the scale of its horror, but we need not “confer on extermination the prestige of the mystical” by positioning the Nazis and their crimes as beyond conceivable reality. The worst of the Nazi atrocities were made possible not only by exceptionally evil leaders and party members, but by millions of ordinary people, and Das Auge des Krieges makes us see through the eyes of one of them. If Susan Sontag is right to say that photographs of war can never be more “than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalizations for mass suffering offered by established powers,” then we would do right to take advantage of Keller’s limited focus—regardless of the reasons behind it—to reflect on how we see the catastrophes that occur in our own time.
Few people (myself included) are interested in casting aside historical and political specificities to argue that every war photograph is an argument against war everywhere. Yet we also needn’t let such specificities keep us from recognizing that even the most exceptional catastrophes in history do not render catastrophes historically exceptional. We can, and should, use the documentary authenticity of photographs to better understand what occurred in the past, but the catastrophes of today and tomorrow will have their own circumstances and their own justifications, and so to recognize what they look like means understanding photography as a medium that, in the words of Berger, “is as close to music as to painting.” We recognize an authentic painting as one with a documented history confirming its uniqueness, but to identify authentic music is to recognize an essential tempo and tone even as a particular piece is reproduced, rearranged, and riffed upon across time. The full potential of Keller’s photographs therefore lies not in their limited ability to add to an historical record but in the opportunity they offer to recognize notes of similarity, however faint or off key, which trouble the comfortable sense of alterity that characterizes our present condition. Perhaps this is what Benjamin meant when he suggested that photographers are the descendants of augurs and haruspices—those seers who read the signs and omens of disasters yet to come. Adam Broomberg and Xiaofu Wang hint as much in their meditative essay on Keller’s photographs, which renders the specific experience he recorded universal, the suffering he witnessed a shared one:
In time snow covers up the blackened ground, a new landscape on top of the old. Blown by the wind it forms rivers and valleys, crisscrossing over each other, in irregular formations.
There is a boy, lying still, with different valleys in his shirt, and a dark river running across his face. He looks like he is dreaming about something far away.
The Mississippi or the Volga?