In the 1910s and 20s, everybody who was anybody in Berlin was photographed by Karl Schenker, the “born portraitist of elegant people.” A master in the art of retouching photographs, Schenker’s flawless, gauzy portraits of young women in furs and tulle set the standard for the female “type” of the silent film era. But just as these silent stars were ushered into cinematic obscurity by the “talkies” in later decades, Schenker’s work and legacy remained largely forgotten in the present day…until now. The Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany’s recent acquisition of 100 portraits by Schenker provided art historians an opportunity to delve into the photographer’s life and work. Master of Beauty: Karl Schenker’s Glamorous Images features 250 works and includes loans from archives around the globe, as well as magazine covers, movie star postcards, and collectible images from cigarette packages.
The photographs offer a glimpse into popular image culture from the first half of the 20th century. We see the same poses again and again—the glance over the shoulder, the hand brushing against the collar. The backdrops are always neutral, light or dark, depending on the complexion and tonality of the subject. Women are always elegant, a bit coquettish, and demure. Men are always distinguished. To accentuate this fantasy, Schenker took great pains to retouch the images. Long before the invention of Photoshop or Instagram filters, Schenker carefully constructed his imagery. He was renowned for his skill with a brush as a master draftsman, a skill that he adapted to remove blemishes, stray hairs, and other less desirable physical characteristics of his subjects. He was also known to add the clothing after the fact, painstakingly painting in the delicate textures of tulle, furs, and jewelry. The resulting image often bared little resemblance to the real life subject, a fact that did not dissuade his clients from demanding their portrait to be made. Of the differences between his photographs of men and women, Schenker believed, “There is a significant difference between portraits of women and men: with the former, one tries to highlight their most favorable features, and with the latter their most distinctive.”
After 14 years in Berlin, Schenker and his second wife Lilli moved to New York where they lived for five years. During this time he changed his name to Karol Schenker and devoted himself to illustration and painting. No photographs are known to exist from 1925 to 1930. In 1930, Schenker returned to Berlin where had great success as a fashion photographer. In favor of more contemporary tastes, he moved away from his signature soft-focus portrait lens, but continued to construct his images and retouch heavily, stating, “There is much disagreement about the necessity and reprehensibility of retouching. […] However, I am of the opinion that a careful and proper retouching by a good draughtsman is of great value to the end result […], as long as it is not noticed by the viewer of the finished picture.”
How this photographer with such prolific popularity could have fallen into obscurity is still somewhat of a mystery. Schenker’s career fizzled out when, as a non-German Jew, lost his clients and was expelled from the country in 1938. He settled in London with his third wife. The rediscovery of this forgotten photographer is published in a beautiful exhibition catalogue edited by Miriam Halwani with texts in German and English.
Master of Beauty: Karl Schenker’s Glamorous Images is on view at the Ludwig Museum through January 8, 2017.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don't Take PIctures.