Chances are that today’s featured photographer sounds completely unfamiliar. She did to me, until I found her name and some representations of her work in a current auction catalogue (Grisebach Berlin, Mai 2013). The auction had featured a few pieces of her work and some fetched far higher prices than the auction house’s estimates. Apart from that, the work on offer was quite varied; some of it experimental, some of it fairly mundane – but it made me curious. Curious enough to devote a feature on this photographer.
Aenne Biermann was born as Anna Sibilla Sternfeld on the 8th of March 1898 in Goch, a town in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. She was born into a wealthy Ashkenazi Jewish family; her father Alfons Sternfeld owned a leather factory that he had inherited from his father Wolfgang Sternfeld. Her mother was Julie Meck.
In 1920 Aenne Sternfeld married Herbert Joseph Biermann, a wealthy textile merchant from Goch and in 1920 they moved to Gera, a center of progressive German culture. The couple had two children; in 1921 a daughter named a Helga and in 1923 a son named Gershon and they would become the first subjects of this self-taught photographer. The majority of Biermann’s photographs were shot between 1925 and 1933 and gradually she became one of the major proponents of New Objectivity, an important art movement in the Weimar Republic.
Her photographs appeared in international art and photography magazines. Following her early amateurish attempts at child photography, Biermann’s subjects included photos of minerals and crystals and close-ups of flowers and plants. She looked carefully at living forms, such as flowers, leaves and plants, based on the partially architectonic structure, the reproduction of which she considered best suited for photography. In this she was following her own interest in natural science and also the stimulus provided by Rudolf Hundt, the geologist who in 1927 asked her to prepare “very precise photographs” of minerals for his scientific work.
In 1929 she took photographs of household utensils and attempted to extract something unfamiliar from the everyday experience with the aid of her technical photographic equipment and the chemicals used for development. Self-taught, Aenne Biermann worked in relative isolation, taking her distinct tendency towards innovative photography primarily from professional journals and books. She stated:
“I realized ever more clearly that the lighting was of critical importance for the clarity of the work. … The effect of light on the polished surface of a metal utensil, a play of shadows seldom noticed, surprising contrasts of black and white, the problem of achieving a happy spatial arrangement in a picture, created inexhaustible surprises.” This “intimacy with objects” and the effort she invested in coming into close contact with everyday objects remain characteristic of Biermann’s work. Of the three thousand or so negatives she made, approximately four hundred prints survive.
Her work became internationally known in the late 1920s, when it was part of every major exhibition of German photography. Major exhibitions of her work include the Munich Kunstkabinett, the Deutscher Werkbund and the exhibition of Folkwang Museum in 1929. Other important exhibitions include the exhibition entitled Das Lichtbild held in Munich in 1930 and the 1931 exhibition at the Palace of Fine Arts (French: Palais des Beaux Arts) in Brussels. Since 1992 the Museum of Gera has held an annual contest for the Aenne Biermann Prize for Contemporary German Photography, which is one of the most important events of its kind in Germany.
Aenne died in Gera of a liver disease on January 14th, 1933.