Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Erich Salomon - The King of the Indiscreet

Erich Salomon, Self-Portrait on Board of the Mauretania, 1929

Erich Salomon (1886-1944) was born into a prosperous German-Jewish family well assimilated into Berlin society. His father was a banker; his mother came from a line of prominent publishers. He first studied zoology, then switched to engineering before finally settling on law and taking his degree in 1913. With the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted into the Kaiser´s army and soon thereafter was captured during the first Battle of the Marne. He spent the next four years in prisoner-of-war camps, where he served as an interpreter and acquired the fluency in French that was later to prove invaluable in gaining entry to conferences.

Erich Salomom, Five Gentlemen Conversing around a Table, c. 1928 (This picture was taken in the Reichskanzlei in Berlin)

In the postwar years, the family fortune melted away in the inflationary storms that devastated the German economy, and Salomon was forced to live by his wits. He founded an electric car and motorcycle rental service. The enterprise failed, but an advertisement he ran offering to give free legal and financial advice to car-rental customers while chauffering them around attracted the attention of the Ullstein publishing house and, in 1925, they offered him a job in their promotion department. At Ullstein, Salomon immediately was fascinated by photography, and soon began shooting feature pictures for the Ullstein dailies. After experimenting with and mastering the technique of shooting indoors by existing light, Salomon had no trouble convincing Ullstein to let him cove the headline-making trial of a police killer for Berliner Illustrierte.

Erich Salomon, Krantz trial. Hilde Scheller in the witness box, Berlin, 1928. The Krantz trial was one of the most famous murder trials in the Weimar Republic. Hilde Scheller (at that time 16 years old), together with a group of boys deeply in love with her, started a so-called "Suicide Club" resulting in one killing on request and one suicide.

Any pictures taken in the courtroom, where photography was forbidden, would have been a major scoop for the paper, but the ones that Salomon returned with were extraordinary. Salomon had accomplished this by hiding his camera in a bowler hat, cutting a hole for the lens. On the last day, when a court attendant finally realized what he was doing and demanded his negatives, Salomon resorted to a trick he was to use time and time again. He handed over unexposed plates, acted repentant, and left with the exposed ones still in his pockets. In 1928, only one year after he had become interested in photography, Salomon´s career was launched.

Erich Salomon, Court trial against Ringverein Immertreu (Wrestling Association Always Loyal), 1929. At that time Berlin's criminals were organized in so-called wrestling clubs as a camouflage. One of these clubs played an important role in Fritz Lang's 1931 movie M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder - some of the crooks were casted with real gangsters.

Salomon soon covered another sensational murder trial. This time, Salomon, a confirmed gadgeteer, concealed his Ermanox in an attaché case outfitted with an intricate set of levers to trigger the shutter. When these pictures were widely published throughout Europe, he left his staff position at Ullstein to become a full-time professional. That same year, he covered his first series of international conferences: the summit meeting in Lugano, a session of the League of Nations in Geneva, and the signing of the Kellogg-Briand disarmament pack in Paris, where he calmly walked in and took the seat of the absent Polish delegate. In his free time, he frequented diplomatic and social events in Berlin.

Erich Salomon, Albert Einstein engaging in animated conversation with British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, surrounded by a group of luminaries including the Nobel Prize-winner Max Planck, far right, and other German political and business leaders, smoking cigars and sipping cognac. The reception was given by Reich Chancellor Brüning in honour of the visiting British Prime Minister in August 1931. “You have no idea with what affection I am surrounded here, they are all out to catch the drops of oil my brain sweats out,” Einstein noted on this occasion.

Because of his dogged persistence, unobstrusive manner, and dramatic results, Salomon found fewer and fewer barriers to his presence in realms where all other photographers were excluded. Indeed, many statemen began to develop a good-humored acceptance of his ubiquity. At the opening of an international gathering, the French Foreign Minister, Aristide Briand, amused his fellow delegates by looking around and exclaiming, "Where is Dr. Salomon? We can´t start without him. The people won´t think this conference is important at all!"

 Erich Salomon, Aristide Briand points to Salomon and shouts: "Ah ! le voilà ! The king of the indiscreet !" (1930)

By 1931, Salomon had reached the apogee of his career. To celebrate his forty-fifth birthday and the publicacion of his book, Famous Contemporaries in Unguarded Moments, he hosted a party for four hundred leading members of Berlin society at the elegant Hotel Kaiserhof. But Salomon´s celebrity in his homeland was short-lived. Only a year later, he returned from a second trip to America to find Hitler headquartered in the Kaiserhof and the Weimar Republic in its death throes. Salomon, like many others, was soon making preparations to leave.

Erich Salomon, German Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann en route to Paris for signature of the Briand-Kellogg Pact, 1928.

Salomon decided to settle in Holland, which was his wife´s native country. Based in the Hague, he still covered many key events. He also continued to travel. Britain especially fascinated him, and he made frequent visits to photograph government and opposition leaders and members of the royal family. In the late thirties he was invited to come to America by Life magazine that had just begun to take root and had picked up many of his photographs. He considered emigrating, but he kept putting it off. Soon it was too late to leave. In May 1940, the Nazi Blitzkrieg swallowed the Low Countries in four days. The candid photographer who had been the toast of Berlin society only a few years before was now forced to wear a yellow star. In 1943, Salomon and his family went into hiding. They were betrayed by a meter reader who noted an increase in gas consumption. According to Red Cross records, Erich Salomon, his wife and their younger son died at Auschwitz in July 1944, a month after the Allies landed in Normandy.

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