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Umbo, The Roving Reporter

Umbo (Otto Umbehr), The Roving Reporter, photomontage (rephotographed), 1926 Speakers: Dr. Juliana Kreinik, Dr. Steven Zucker, Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Steven: This is Steven Zucker. Beth: Beth Harris, introducing Julie Kreinik. Julie's here for the first time joining us in Smarthistory and we're going to talk about this really cool photograph that I really love. Can you tell us what it is? Julie: It's actually a photomontage and the title is "The Roving or Frantic Reporter". Beth: And this is portrait of a specific person, right? Julie: It is a portrait of a Czech journalist. The portrait's from 1926 and is of a man named Egon Erwin Kisch. Steven: And he was an actual reporter. Julie: He's was an actual reporter, an actual journalist who was roving around mostly in Germany and in big cities like Berlin. The photomontage is by this amazing German artist, Otto Umbehr, who went by the name "Umbo". Beth: So what's so amazing about Umbehr? Steven: Look at this, it's fantastic! (laughs) Julie: We're going to call him Umbo because that's the fly name that he chose, so he just went by Umbo. Umbo created this photomontage and really it relates both directly to the kind of journalist that Kisch was and that he was roving around and he was frantically seeking new information. It also relates to this idea that we're totally informed by the technologies of our own era. I think it's just fascinating to look at all these modern technologies that create this journalist, that make up him. Steven: And in a sense, make up the culture at this moment. Julie: Absolutely. Beth: And really kind of dominated the way people were interacting with the world, just like we are so involved with the internet and chatting and IM ... (crosstalk). Steven: But the word you used a moment ago, dominating, is perfect because this is a giant who's striving over the city. Julie: He is. He's dominating the landscape completely. And he sees everything. Beth: He does, like God. Julie: Well, he has all of these sort of, they're enhanced appendages and sensory abilities, so you can see the camera lens makes up his right eye and he has the phonograph speaker as his ear. He hears better than anyone else. Beth: And he moves better. Julie: His leg is a car and a plane. Beth: He's ready to move. Steven: It's so interesting because in the '20s is really when popular comic figures were with sort of expanded powers, right? Beth: Mm-hmm, superheroes. Steven: Superheroes were really being developed - Julia: Is that true? Does that date from the '20s? Steven: Absolutely. Beth: Like a superhero journalist (laughs). It reminds of walking texting now with your phone because he's actually typing as he's trying to get over the mountains and the crowd below. Julie: Of course at the time, the typewriter is to them what Blackberry is to us. That's what I found. It's that thing that speeds up commuications. Steven: That's really interesting because now of course, in a popular press, there's all these fears about people spending too much time on their Blackberries, too much time on their computers, and I mean this is very true. Beth: And multi-tasking - (crosstalk) Steven: So this is also I think and expression of those fears . Julie: It's kind of a monstrous figure with this technology and I think it's also like he's heroic and that he's huge and enormous and he has all these enhanced sensory abilities like a super hero, got super powers, but he's also really a menacing. Beth: Yeah. Steven: No question. Beth: Stomp on the crowd below and shove them. Julia: Yes, he's going to crush them with of his abilities there. Beth: This also really reminds me of images of people after World War I with prosthesis. Julie: Yes. Steven: So the deformation of the body. Beth: Yeah, like the people, the veterans coming back and images by George Gross, the wounded war veterans. (crosstalk) Julie: The Krieg's cripple is there were the war cripple and that was just this huge symbolic and literal figure that came into the German, and many landscapes, but especially all across Germany, there were 4 million new wounded war veterans that were all of sudden - Julie: Not all of them had prosthetic limbs, but a huge proportion of them did. The technologies of the war totally changed the way people relate to their own bodies and the way that they relate to other people's bodies. This really isn't a good association because Germany lost the war, so they're not looked on as heroic figures, they're the veterans who lost, they lost their limbs. Beth: It's a reminder to show their humiliation. Julie: Yeah. Steven: But that's been reversed here because even though there's a menace and there's a negative aspect to some extent, there's also real promise here and sense of power. The parts of his face that are not obscured are still really quite handsome and there's a very positive aspect here as well. Julie: I think he's dashing. Beth: He is dashing with a cigarette - Beth: Very suave. Julie: Kind of glamorous. Steven: So it's a kind of retrieval of the promise of technology then in some way. Julie: Sort of trying to reclaim technology as something that offers promise, optimism, hope and things that help progress. Beth: Progress. Julie: Exactly, modern culture, progress. Steven: This was a pretty desperate moment in German economic history. Julie: It's actually interestingly, a few years after desperation, things are better in Germany ... Beth: Slightly better. Julie: ... Slightly better in 1926, I mean a lot better than they were in 1920. Through the early '20s, things were still in recovery, but by the mid '20s, things were getting better and I think in large part due to things like industrial - Beth: I'm wondering if people looking at this and seeing the camera by his eye, would have thought of those images of gas masks during the war. Steven: Yeah, that's a pretty dense layer of associations here, it's pretty extraordinary. How was this kind of imagery received in the '20s? Julie: I think it had different audiences. I think artists that looked at it that were interested in seeing new kinds of image making, new vision photography, received it really well. This is also on the cover of a book. That was sort of a collection of Kirsch's journalistic pieces. It was reproduced many, many times. That's also kind of relating to the idea of modern technology and reproduction, so the images reproduce, it's rephotographed, Beth: Made from photographs. Julie: Made from photographs, pieced together, kind of their variety of echoes. For me one of the really interesting things is the idea of the speed ad technology everything kind of coming together. The journalist is exploring things and looking all around him, it's almost like he can see everything at once and technology is what's enabling him to do that. I think that idea that technology enables us to do more and better and faster - Beth: Which we still have. Julie: Exactly. I think it was exciting then and I think it was exciting - Beth: Technology can solve our problems. Steven: But I think also the reinsertion of the power of the journalist is probably a really important issue at this moment. Especially if we get the sense that the journalist has some integrity. It's not a part of a larger machine of propaganda. Beth: Right. Steven: It has some objectivity. Beth: Right, which is also of course going to disappear in Nazi Germany. Steven: Very quickly. Julie: By the end of the 1920s and early 1930s things are looking vastly different. But '26 is a good year. The economy's looking up, things aren't quite looking bad yet. There's this moment of progress and technology is just integral to that. It's integral to his body. Steven: It's fascinating. Terrific. Thanks. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)