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Walter Henisch (1913–1975)
German forces attack a train transporting Soviet weaponry
From the 54-part album: Russland Heft I, Kampfbilder
USSR, Smolensk, August 1941
Gelatin silver print, mounted on cardboard, 23,3 x 17,1 cm
Negative number „2379/22a” and number of the album „H1/13” in pencil on the reverse

The work of the press photographer culminates in the documentation of war zones, as far as the specifics and myths of this profession as well as certain paradigms of photography become very apparent in this genre. As the „invisible observer”, seemingly uninvolved, the photographer dives into the course of events; he registers them, supposedly neutral, with his internal apparatus. The virtuosity of the photo-hunter shows when he reacts completely automatically at the right moment. Admittedly the paradigm of documentary requires high efforts from the author as well as the editor of an image, to create „real”, seemingly authentic images. Compositional effects are used in the service of the dramaturgic depiction of situations, e.g. cropping and blurring caused by movement, to illustrate the before and after of a moment, as well as causal and evaluative contexts.

The Austrian photo journalist Walter Henisch experienced the most productive time of his career during his stint as a war photographer for the German Wehrmacht. Besides his official images that had to be approved by the national socialist media (still visible in the stamps added on many of the prints), he also took pictures of the population of the occupied areas, as well as landscapes and cities. After the war he created elaborate portfolios from these images, to be able to show them in private circles and tell stories about the war. His son, author Peter Henisch, handled his father’s legacy by writing an insightful novel.

In his novel he tells the story of the above image in his father’s words: „A railroad embankment, that the Russians were shooting at at waist level (…) to cross this embankment was nothing but Russian Roulette. First the group is lying under cover that is one image. One image: The strained tension visible in the faces, they jump up and head off – soldiers that run, some duck – some collapse – some scream (…) A series of 20 to 30 images. Exposed by me. My capacity of estimating light and movement has already turned to instinct. In the next shelter I will develop these images.”

Shortly after the beginning of the attack on the Sowjet Union, the Wehrmacht started the offensive in direction of Smolensk, where the Red Army had built new lines of defence. In the process big parts of the Red Army were enclosed. Even though the advance on Moscow, which was expected to be a Blitzkrieg, was delayed, this battle of encirclement and annihilation was a success for the Wehrmacht. All in all the Red Army lost 760.000 men during the operation at Smolensk from 10th of July to 10th of September 1941.

Marie Röbl, © WestLicht

Lit.: Peter Henisch, Die kleine Figur meines Vaters, Vienna 1975, p. 95 (quote); Brutale Neugier. Walter Henisch, Kriegsfotograf und Bildreporter, ed. by Christian Stadelmann and Regina Wonisch, cat. Vienna Museum, 2003, p. 57 a. 36 (ill. 33).