Now, in the first exhibition of Hase’s work outside of Germany, 34 vintage photographs are on view in Elisabeth Hase: An Independent Vision at Robert Mann Gallery. Ranging from theatrical self-portraits and still lifes of sugar cubes to snapshots of Frankfurt street life, the featured images were culled from a vast archive of negatives and ephemera recently acquired by the gallery. Nani Simonis, Hase’s daughter, spent 20 years organizing the collection of work, which miraculously survived a house fire caused by an Allied bombing raid on Frankfurt in 1994.
Long before the chameleonic Cindy Sherman was photographing herself in clown makeup, Hase was role-playing for staged self-portraits that explored the fluidity of personal identity. She posed shouting, eyes closed, under an outdoor shower; weeping into a handkerchief in front of an ominous man in friar’s garb; and reflected in a mirrored orb, in a photograph that looks like a precursor to both M.C. Escher and today’s plague of gazing ball selfies. In one bird’s-eye view image, Hase is sprawled face down on a staircase, with pressed curls under a dainty hat, her dress rumpled, and purse flung to the side. It captures a momentary loss of poise for the otherwise impeccably put-together subject. In another, she appears holding a camera, photographing a vase of flowers. Created under the specter of Nazism, these images are startling and have lost none of their power.
Hase’s still lifes, too, were ahead of their time. In the vein of what Bauhaus artist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy dubbed “the New Vision” — an avant-garde movement that explored how photography could capture the outside world in ways the human eye could not — Hase’s images of mundane objects experimented with unusual perspectives and warped scale. Stacks of sugar cubes and piled-up matchboxes, photographed up close, resemble jagged brick skyscrapers; a detail of a string instrument is transformed into a geometric abstract composition; a zoomed-in shot highlights the fractals in a feather’s barbs. Today, images like these don’t look particularly groundbreaking, but they were formally experimental in their time, with their use of unexpected camera angles and framing. Along with the work of Hase’s better-known contemporaries, like Ilse Bing, these images represented a split from more painterly approaches to photography and a response to burgeoning technologies’ effects on human perception.
Hase’s life was as contemporary as her work. She often favored shirts and ties over frocks and heels and kept her maiden name in both of her marriages. After studying with and working for Paul Wolff, a pioneer of Leica photography, she started a studio of her own — much to Wolff’s annoyance, which he articulated in disdainful letters.
In the aftermath of World War II, though her equipment was lost in the 1944 air raids, Hase was able to resume her photographic practice with the help of friends who had emigrated and were able to send her a new camera and film by way of the US Army. Granted a permit by the occupying US forces, Hase was given unprecedented access to document Frankfurt’s rebuilding efforts; in particular, she photographed the reconstruction of St. Paul’s Church in 1947.
Now, 25 years after Hase’s death, her personal work has finally made its way out of hiding. Despite any “degenerate” qualities these photographs might possess, their impact did not degenerate with age.
Elisabeth Hase: An Independent Vision continues at Robert Mann Gallery (525 West 26th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through May 7.