"Man stands always in the center" (Dimitri Soulas)
The magazine culture strongly and lastingly influenced the media landscape of the 1960’s. High-circulation foreign weeklies such as Life, Look, Paris Match, Epoca and Western German weeklies like Quick, Kristall and Stern gave special meaning to the press photographer’s work. Professional and self-taught photographers alike successfully confronted the audience with current developments in politics, culture and society. According to a contemporary witness, they represented the “fine art of the press photographer [. . .] that brought the pulsing life of the big, wide world to the people back home in all its moments of glory and sadness.”
Not only the magazines, but also the daily papers saw the importance of photos as an expression. It was during this zenith of photojournalism that Dimitri Soulas decided to pursue this line of work.
His father wanted him to work as a tobacco salesman, but his fascination for film, and for directors like Jean-Luc Godard and the Nouvelle Vague, initially made Soulas want to pursue a career as a director. In 1959, he visited an exhibition, The Family of Man, curated by Edward Steichen and was deeply impressed. Soulas began to admire the works of the Kristall and Stern photographers Thomas Hoepker and Robert Lebeck.
It was not just the medium itself but also his university studies that provided artistic stimulation for his work as a photographer. Politicized during the Frankfurt lectures by Adorno, Horkheimer and Marcuse and with Hegel’s philosophies providing a foundation for his beliefs, Soulas started to focus on photography. Popular photography textbooks by Andreas Feininger played a major role in the development of his aesthetic and technical training. However, the critical and philosophical awareness raised by the Frankfurt School heavily influenced his views as a photographer. He believed that photos should reflect social relationships and reality as a whole. His credo was to capture people in authentic and natural poses in a moving and “relevant” moment.
His first contacts for his work as a press photographer came through Associated Press (AP) and its representative Klaus Hampel for whom Soulas initially took pictures of celebrities and local events in Munich. His first published photos showed the aftermath of a gas explosion. Their unconventional style made them different–Soulas had captured the fire-fighters and first responders in a rotating motion or through a wall mirror in the destroyed building. Usually, AP offered photos, including a comprehensive cutline and the photographer’s name, to daily papers and magazines via radiotelegraphy. This was how Soulas came to the attention of Karl Wanninger, then editor-in-chief of the Munich daily paper tz.
Over time, his works became more direct or, in his own words, “bolder”, but he never crossed certain lines. Instead, Soulas focused more on reactions and behaviour in random encounters with passers-by. When he witnessed exceptional situations, his sympathy for those without rights, the destitute and the “working class” became obvious. The series about the drunken homeless outside a beer hall is a perfect example of this aspect of his work.
According to Soulas, the working situation in those days was excellent. Daily papers would pay 30 D-Mark per published, and a smaller kill fee for unpublished photographs. Other regular clients, like Stern or Quick, paid much better in the case of a publication. The fee for a single page was 600 D-Mark, for a double page 1200 D-Mark, kill fees were between 300 and 500 D-Mark. In addition to daily news photos, feature motifs were in great demand nationwide. According to Arthur Rothstein, director of photography at the magazine Look, “a feature photograph is a single picture of an event that is of continuing interest, creating a mood, presenting information or recording a timely subject, rather than spot news.” This included timeless motifs to illustrate a topic, especially as photo editors liked to use those in the weekend inserts.
In order to improve the nationwide distribution of his photos, Soulas organized a photo dispatch with 5 to 6 „feature motif“ or exceptional celebrity photo prints in an 18 x 24 cm format–a clever move for those motifs soon became a successful and profitable second income.
With regards to form and content, Soulas stood in the tradition of humanistic-oriented Life photography propagated by photographers at the Agentur Magnum and by magazines and various exhibitions in Germany after 1945. International press photos were shown in the World Exhibition of Photography (curated by Karl Pawek on behalf of Stern) where Pawek’s much discussed and criticized thesis of a “total photography” was presented. The FOTO-EXPO by the magazine Quick (1968) and the photokina in Cologne represented another forum. At the largest specialized fair in the world–which was accompanied by a cultural program–the works of international noteworthy celebrities of photography were presented to the public. Organizer and instigator Leo Fritz Gruber had invited Dimitri Soulas to present 12 of his works at the exhibition Forum Junge Fotografie (Forum Modern Photography) in 1970. On this occasion, in Cologne, Soulas met Henri Cartier-Bresson, who encouraged him to send photos to the Agentur Magnum in Paris where they were published sometime later.
Working as an independent press photographer was a happy and intense time in Dimitri Soulas’ life. He loved his work and carried it out passionately. As a “freelance” photographer, he worked seven days a week around the clock. He–like many of his colleagues–was not pleased when his pictures were cut by the lay outer or had subtitles that changed their effect and meaning. Even though the context in which his photos appeared in magazines did not manipulate his images, seeing his work outside their illustrative function is a very special experience indeed. The photos have a life of their own . . . a life that could never fully unfold in magazines. This change in perception can also be attributed to the better print quality compared to the magazines’ halftone print.
The photo library portraying the history of day-to-day life in Munich that Dimitri Soulas loaned the museum is as interesting as it is eclectic. While photos of important events like the Olympic Games 1972 are most certainly eye-catching, his precise observations of human behaviour are even more so. Many pictures appeal to our emotions and draw us in. The photographer was not so much drawn by “middle class” citizens as by the social extremes of poverty and wealth. Those social antipodes define the picture of Munich society as Soulas saw and experienced it as someone from the “outside”, and the stereotypes of Munich folklore he captured in his photos serve as a documentation of a bizzare everyday life. This is evident in the shots of people using snuff or those depicting the love the citizens of Munich had for their “Zamperln” (author’s note: small dogs), but his most impressive and impressing photos are those of situations where Soulas’ astonishment about traditions and rituals shines through. A most comical example is the photo series showing an actor playing Hitler who undresses down to his underwear and remains standing next to his assassin von Stauffenberg in peaceful harmony.
Following Henri Cartier-Bresson’s maxim, Dimitri Soulas acted with more reserve and remained mostly “invisible” when working as a press photographer realizing the need to approach the motif carefully and with a sharp eye, even when it is a still life.
One may understand Dimitri Soulas’ photos as a cultural-critical commentary about a consumer society with the tendency to isolate the individual. His emphatic viewpoint shows sympathy for the “victims” never losing sight of humanity. Furthermore, his photos do not just bear historical witness; they also reflect the photographer’s personality, his wit and his humour. His search for a novel point of view on his chosen home Munich was always motivated by curiosity and esprit.
Dimitri Soulas gave up his work as a photographer at a time when the German media landscape was about to undergo fundamental changes. The magazines were facing a major crisis when commercial broadcasting began to take over and became the medium of choice for news reporting in the 1980’s. Contemporary photography in Germany was heavily influenced by the American documentary-type style employed by William Eggleston or Stephen Shore. Some of Soulas’ photographs seem similar to the photo series of the “new” generation forming around Hans-Martin Kuesters or Gabriele and Helmut Nothhelfer. This new generation of photographers focuses on Germans at their recreational events, but without the “interconnection”. Instead, it defines itself by renouncing the classic photojournalism and develops a different understanding of reality–one that cannot be reduced to the rendition of the “one defining moment” anymore.
1. Hubmann, Hanns. “FOTO-EXPO.” fotoalmanach international 1970. Publisher Hetz, Robert. Dusseldorf: 1969. 69.
2. Rothstein, Arthur. “Photojournalism. Pictures for Magazines and Newspapers. New York: 1965 (1956). 59. Between 1935 and 1940, Rothstein took photographs under Roy Stryker for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in the South of the United States of America.
3. Cartier-Bresson, Henri. “Der entscheidende Augenblick” (1952). Theorie der Fotografie III, 1945-1980. Publisher Kemp, Wolfgang. Munich: 1983. 80.