What is propaganda photography?

Famous propaganda photography poster

State propaganda is a kind of advertising for political ideas and parties. Recently, after all, the parties’ election campaigns have been run by advertising institutes, which then convey the characteristics of their product “party” according to the principles of visual communication outlined above. Propaganda photography plays a big role in state propaganda.

Propaganda photography in WW2

The propaganda of the Third Reich was specially designed for visual communication. The ritualistic stagings of the Reich’s cigarette advertisements with female and male sexual symbols
(e.g., shell, mast). party rallies (and their dissemination via the photograph) reached unconscious processing layers of the audience.
To illustrate the role of the photograph in propaganda, then, it is worth examining the Third Reich in more detail (see Herz 1994).
Specifically, the Hitler portrait is the focus of propagandistic efforts. Although the archives of Hitler’s court photographer Hoffman are rudimentary, there are masses of postcards and front pages of Hitler that allow a study of the Führer’s presentation.
Initially, the portrait photograph served to embellish Hitler’s face. The face, described as doughy, with somewhat protruding eyes, and unattractively broad nose, and receding forehead, does not now at all exhibit the features expected of a great leader.
All the more reason to appreciate the achievement of the photographer, who succeeded in suggesting striking facial features by means of black drop shadows, and who conjured up an illuminated, charismatic look in the leader’s face by means of a clever exposure of background light and backlight.

Rectangular mustache and the strand of hair hanging into the forehead, developed only later, led to the impression of the geometric, striking, distinctive when the lighting was right.
The lateral light also emphasized the “strong-willed” bulges above the eyes (compare, for example, Cranach’s portrait of Luther, Warnke 1984).
Moreover, Hitler did not exhibit the characteristics of the Aryan, which he raised on the shield of his movement. Was he therefore not conceivably unsuitable for propaganda purposes?
Indeed, scoffing contemporaries pointed out this and other aesthetic flaws.
“Hitler, so to speak, does not look at all, he merely pretends sometimes.
His soft, uninteresting Kubinke features shine disconcertingly through all the Führer masks that have been applied thicker and thicker over the years.”

The effect of propaganda

It was the mass-distributed embellished photographic portrait, however, that wrote Hitler’s appearance into the memory of the masses.
Almost every postage stamp of the time features an image fashioned after such a photograph. During his speeches, the people saw their leader from a distance and could hardly recognize his face.
Carefully, portrait photos by amateurs and photographers of non-affiliated newspapers (e.g., by stipulating a distant photo location) were avoided at the Reich Party conferences.
The viewer from a distance recognized the features artificially added to the face, such as the dark, rectangular mustache (often retouched in Hoffmann’s photos) and the triangular section of the forehead – and added in his head the face familiar from the press.
How easily this works can still be experienced today by anyone who paints a black square in a face circle and adds a diagonal strand of hair: Immediately the Hitler caricature is perfect, the face disappears behind the mask (cf. Gombrich 1984 b).
Hitler’s real face was also often hidden under the black Wehrmacht cap pulled deep into his face. This was a carefully considered detail of propaganda photography.
Staged photos in oratorical poses (by the way, poses that Hitler had not even assumed while speaking) were placed in memory during the speeches in the empty space of Hitler’s actual close-up view.
Because perception consists of a mixture of learned expectation and seen stimulus, one recognized in the real Hitler and his often unfavorable reportage photos the previously stored – and whipped – image.
Thus, Hoffmann’s portraits became more the “real” Hitler than the one in the flesh. Once photographed by an American star photographer in a more personal pose, the potentate complained that these pictures looked nothing like him.
In the meantime, he knew himself only in the mirror of his photographer’s portraits.
But the photographer’s stagings also charged the Hitler portrait with hidden meanings: With his collar turned up, the subject is reminded of the storm-tossed captain.

How propaganda photography changed

Later, features of traditional portraits of princes were also put into the picture. The propped-up arm, the cloak billowing around the leader, the wide background overlooked from the mountaintop, the shot from the submissive lower view: all this suggests the potentate and is taken from the imposing paintings of emperors and kings.
From their experience with such models, the public understood, without wanting or being able to verbalize it, the fullness of the power of the leader.
A distant resemblance of the photos to portraits of Bismarck may also have been intentional. The statement achieved via the resemblance was, “Here is a statesman as important as Bismarck.”
This statement was also brought to the people without words as pictorial communication. The simplicity of the uniform shown was reminiscent of the simplicity of old Prussian royalty.
But the charging of the image went even further: to a quasi-religious consecration. Damage to images of Hitler was punished with severe prison sentences, some lasting years – as was conceivable and customary for damage to images of gods in other cultures.
The Reich eagle above the swastika had a cross shape as an overall figure. Thus, a visual analogy to the Christian cross was established. The motif of the Führer’s suffering for humanity was taken up in rapturous texts.
And the people cheered the mighty achievement bestowed by the Führer. The imagination of the NSDAP editors went so far as to recommend a house altar with Hitler’s image (this, however, was not supported by the central propaganda leadership and photography).
Thus the Prussian newspaper of 29.1.1932 wrote:
“If we start from the fact that the altar in the churches of both denominations constitutes the main and central point around which church life revolves, then even dissenters cannot object if we call a place in our home that serves to honor Hitler an altar.”
Huge enlargements of photos (max. 18 meters, 1937 at the exhibition “Give me 4 years time” in Berlin) reminded me of the enormous images of gods of all cultures.

The story continues…

In turn, power and significance were put into the picture via size.
Another icon of National Socialist propaganda was the cultic moment of the march past. The individual stood eye to eye with the “god.” Hitler looked through his human material and examined it.
The march past of the Hitler Youth, the SA, and other associations at the Reich Party congresses was captured in detail on the plate by Hoffmann – usually from the Führer’s perspective – and published in book volumes on the party congresses. The arrangement of the
crowds visualized order, discipline, and ever-ready thrust.
In a democracy, photographers can no longer be so tightly controlled. The leaders are photographed from all angles and in almost all situations.
It is not so easy to fool the public – as far as the appearance of the politician is concerned. This kind of photo coverage creates a clear demand for good and dignified looking political leaders.
Even a seasoned psychology professor once admitted to voting for an FRG politician simply because he was so irresistibly good-looking.
War propaganda also relied heavily on pictorial reporting. During World War II, the American press did not show pictures of fallen Americans.
There was fear for the willingness of the population to support the war (see above). When the war had already claimed many victims, this policy changed. It is important to understand this when we are speaking about propaganda photography.

Final thoughts

Now a solidarity effect could be expected. Indeed, the sale of war bonds increased dramatically after a photograph of American dead at Buna Beach was published.In the film “wag the dog,” the misleading of the people by the media is ironically extremized. The American president fakes a war in the media to distract from a sex scandal.
The – faked – touching photo of a fleeing Albanian peasant girl has a key role in this.

To conclude, propaganda photography was a powerful tool in the past to control minds of people and is still a powerful tool today.

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