How I Came Home

Documentary Photography Jun 9, 2015

For most of my professional career I was a teacher of French literature and much of my published work has been in that field. But I have always been a wanderer and, since my retirement in 1999, perhaps a rather reckless one. Sometimes I look back to see if I can discern any consistency in my seemingly random curiosity and research projects. The main thread seems to be a fascination with history: history as a literary genre (I was an early associate of Hayden White, who refers in Metahistory to an article I published in 1963 on Voltaire’s Histoire de Charles XII as a literary text); history as an inquiry into the forces and institutions that shape societies and cultures and thus as a form of argument, inasmuch as historical narratives usually support or challenge existing narratives; and, finally, history as a rescue operation designed to salvage persons, actions, and works of literary or visual art that our institutionalized instruments of memory – academic studies, museums, school curricula – have overlooked or rejected.

Understandably perhaps, that last concern, present from an early stage in my career, has intensified with advancing age. My D.Phil. thesis in 1957 was on a practically unknown eighteenth-century French medievalist; subsequently I published books or articles on little studied French Romantic historians and on the Swiss classical scholar Johann Jacob Bachofen, whose writings on ancient “matriarchy” contributed, malgré lui, to the feminist movement.  After retirement, I worked to arouse interest in a number of artists who have been largely ignored by art historians and museum curators and have thus vanished from public awareness, but whose endeavors remain of human, political, and at least modest artistic significance: the Central European Zionist E.M. Lilien, who helped to found the Bezalel school of arts and crafts in Jerusalem; the German Jugendstil artist, designer and book illustrator Heinrich Vogeler, who was transformed by the trauma of the First World War from a dandy and aesthete into an anarcho-socialist and, later, a Communist, and who sought, albeit unsuccessfully, to combine elements of expressionism and socialist realism into a style appropriate to his new political convictions.; the Nazarene painters of the early nineteenth century, who tried to revive a more public, less individualistic art than that introduced by easel painting, earning for Germany, in their own time, a reputation as  “the motherland of a regenerated art, a second Italy of the modern age,” but who were subsequently almost completely forgotten and disregarded beyond the boundaries of their native Germany.[1]

I then turned, in two later books, to two once popular women writers of the first half of the twentieth century whose rebellion against the constraints imposed by their class and their gender was expressed in diametrically opposed political commitments, but who had nevertheless both practically disappeared from view: the so-called “red countess” Hermynia Zur Mühlen, an Austrian aristocrat turned radical socialist, the author of “proletarian fairy tales” that were translated into virtually every European language, as well as Chinese and Japanese, and of moving and insightful novels about young women struggling to attain personal, moral, and intellectual independence;[2] and her less successful, less talented rightwing counterpart, Princess Marie Adelheid Reuss zur Lippe, poet, novelist, and unrepentant Neo-Nazi after World War II.[3] Most recently I tried to understand how and why the twentieth-century French writer André Maurois, one of the most widely read, admired, and translated writers in the world during his lifetime, has fallen into such disfavor that today’s teachers of French literature hardly recognize his name;[4] and to awaken interest in Max von Oppenheim, sometimes known as the “German T.E. Lawrence,” a widely respected amateur archeologist and Orientalist, whose part-Jewish background kept him from the diplomatic career he aspired to, but only intensified his passionate German patriotism, leading him to propose the fomenting of jihad among the colonial subjects of the British, the French, and the Russians during World War I and to promote German collaboration with radical Islamists during World War II.[5]

It is only now, however, that having reached my mid-80s, I have begun to extend my interest in neglected or forgotten figures  to some of the remarkably inventive artists active in the nineteenth-century heyday of the grimy, gritty, working-class city where I was born, raised and educated and which, even in my day, could still plausibly style itself “the Second City of the Empire” (after Calcutta, it was sometimes conceded). As traveling has become more problematic for me than it was at an earlier stage in life, I have found myself increasingly “going home” in spirit to the place where I spent my formative years. This little book on Thomas Annan, to the studio of whose descendants – still then on Sauchiehall Street in the center of Glasgow – my cousins and I were dispatched to have our graduation portraits taken, is part of that return journey. Thomas Annan is well enough known in the photographic community, but not among the wider general public. With this short account of his activity as a photographer I have done what I can, in an act of pietas, to awaken or reawaken interest in him and his work. My next project, if I am granted time to execute it, will be a similar act of pietas, a study of the Glasgow stained-glass artist, Stephen Adam, whose original and beautiful, but little known stained-glass panels of 1877, realistically representing the workers in the dynamic modern industries of Victorian Glasgow, adorn the Burgh Halls of Maryhill, in the northern section of the city.

Thomas Annan of Glasgow: Pioneer of the Documentary Photograph offers a handy, comprehensive and copiously illustrated overview of the full range of the photographer’s work. The book opens with a brief account of the immediate context of Annan’s career as a photographer: the astonishing florescence of photography in Victorian Scotland. Successive chapters deal with each of the main fields of his activity, touching along the way on issues such as the nineteenth-century debate over the status of photography — a mechanical practice or an artistic one? — and the still ongoing controversies surrounding the documentary photograph in particular.

[1] Medievalism and the Ideologies of the Enlightenment (1968); “The Go-Between: Jules Michelet” (1974); “Basle, Bachofen and the Critique of Modernity” (1984); Between History and Literature (1990); “Jugendstil in Firestone: The Jewish Illustrator E.M. Lilien” (2004); “Unwilling Moderns: The Nazarene Painters of the Nineteenth Century” (2003)

[2] Hermynia Zur Mühlen, The End and the Beginning: The Book of My Life (2010)

[3] Brownshirt Princess: A Study of the ‘Nazi Conscience’ (2009)

[4] Andre Maurois (1885-1967): Fortunes and Misfortunes of a Moderate (2014)

[5] The Passion of Max von Oppenheim: Archaeology and Intrigue in the Middle East from Wilhelm II to Hitler (2013)


Lionel Gossman

Lionel Gossman is M. Taylor Pyne Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures, Emeritus at Princeton University. He is the author of several books and many articles on historians and historiography