Der Grazer Gehfotograf
Gehfotografen, literally “walking photographers”, were active on the streets of cities and tourist destinations across Europe between 1927 and 1935. This type of profession became increasingly popular with the Great Depression, when the 1929 collapse of the New York stock exchange led to an economic crisis throughout Europe. Unemployment and poverty eventually led to a civil war in 1934.
Under such circumstances, studio commissions fell short and professional photographers resorted to alternative sources of income. This was the beginning of what became known in the English-speaking world as street photography.
Today being photographed in a public place without consent constitutes a violation of our privacy. Yet in 1930s Graz, Gehfotografen were mostly active around public places, where they used to shoot sequences of three images per passer-by on a 35 mm film. Once exposed and printed as postcards, the photographs were sold as souvenirs to the unaware pedestrians.
Whether cropped or folded into a wallet, photographs were sold back as a currency of recognition to the same common people who had had the privilege of being shot. Passers-by were usually approached with a piece of paper reporting the name and the address of the photographer, alongside the statement: “You have been photographed”. Pictures could be collected at local shops for 1.5 Schilling each, at the time the cost of a lunch.
Taking advantage of the increased number of visitors who came to the city for the Graz Autumn Fair, which by 1906 attracted up to 60.000 people, the anonymous Graz photographer must have shot in total over 10.000 between roughly 1927 and 1935, out of which Foto Forum presents 1400 image sequences in the exhibition, which were most likely unclaimed.
With his tripod, the photographer was certainly visible from a distance. People’s reactions to the sight of the camera vary greatly, as several shots in the exhibition show: some are surprised, others smile, many seem uncomfortable, suspicious, irritated even, while only a few go as far as striking a pose.
Despite their historical interest, few examples of the work of street photographers have come down to us. If at the time of their making they were considered commonplace objects, over time they became second-class products of a short-lived phenomenon.
Der Grazer Gehfotograf offers an offbeat insight into life in Graz in the 1920s and 1930s. The images on show raise thought-provoking questions about privacy here and there, now and then. But mostly, they offer a subtle yet kaleidoscopic documentation of how the sidewalk turned into a catwalk.