A curious tale of a photobook
Richard Peter’s 1949 book Dresden — eine Kamera klagt an (Dresden — a camera accuses) had been on my radar screen for a while. Photographed in the city after its destruction by Allied bombers in 1945, the book is mostly known for three of its images. There is the view over parts of the ruined city, with a statue in the immediate foreground.
And there are are two photographs of the remains of Germans who had perished in an air-raid shelter. What is left of them is reminiscent of ancient tombs: their clothes are preserved, but only bones and hair are left, a ghoulish spectacle if there ever was one.
What I knew was that the book had fallen out of favour with East Germany’s socialist rulers not long after it had been published. Originally published in 1949, it would only get republished in 1980 and then, again, in 1995. When I came across spreads from the book on Brad Feuerhelm’s Instagram account, I thought I should finally look for my own copy (also check this piece Brad wrote about the book).
Given the three options, I thought that I would want a copy of the 1949 book, if it would be affordable. It turned out that it was. The cheapest copy I found was located in France. Even though my French is very rusty (I can read it reasonably well, but don’t expect me to be able to say anything), I understood from the listing that the book would come with its original dust jacket, that there was some tape attached, and that it was from the library of some Pierre Verry. That sounded good to me. I had no idea who Pierre Verry was, but owning a book with some provenance seemed like a nice bonus.
A week later, the book arrived. Sure enough, there is a book plate carrying the hand-written name Pierre Verry, plus “Dresden. Noël 1954.”
Opposite the book plate, there are two more labels. The first, on top, was hand written, saying (in translation) “Given by the Council of the City of Dresden.” The second, below, says “ All the best Christmas Wishes to Pierre Verry,” the dedication having been added with a typewriter. So if the city council would give a book to Pierre Verry who was that man? Google led me to this Pierre Verry: “un acteur français, né […] 1913 […] et mort […] 2009 […]. La plus grande partie de sa carrière est consacrée à l’art du mime et se déroule aux côtés de Marcel Marceau.” Or (my slightly sloppy translation): “French actor, born in 1913, died in 2009. The majority of his career was dedicated to being a mime, and he acted at the side of Marcel Marceau.”
So wait, I had bought a book that had belonged to Marcel Marceau’s mime partner? The skeptic in me did and does not quite want to believe it. But the clues seem convincing. If there was another Pierre Verry, he would have been important enough to have received the book from the city council of Dresden as a gift. I couldn’t find one, at least not online.
I had never seen the whole book, so it was very instructive to see more photographs than the ones that are so well-known. In places, the book contrasts pre-war photographs with the same scene after the war. The layout is simple, with not all that much text added. Much like Tomatsu Shomei later, Peters used the image of what was left over from a time piece to signify the moment the city had been destroyed. Here, it’s the twisted guts of the large town-hall clock.
And much like in other books showing the aftermath of World War 2, photographs of destroyed statues feature prominently. The book is organized in a series of chapters that first show the destruction and then move towards the human, individual dimension, to end with the city’s reconstruction.
The preamble of where the pictures approach the more individual dimension is drastic: there’s a picture of a skeleton, shown in silhouette against a ruin, with the caption added “Death over Dresden”.
And then, on the right of the skeleton, there’s a wall covered in graffiti, some of it gruesome to read (my partial translation): “Clara Singer [lying] here in the rubble, Heinrich Singer is alive”, “where is Frau Braunert?”, “Mother, we’re trying to find you.” But there’s also tape. Turns out that three pages of the book are taped together, and from the looks of it, that tape is old. That’s the tape the auction listing spoke of.
What’s on those pages that are now inaccessible because they’re taped together?
On the other side of the taped section, the book moves to people: “man after the destruction.” And then it continues with the rebuilding of the city.
I thought about cutting the tape. But I decided against it. Here was, after all, a copy of this book that had probably belonged to a well-known French actor (who had received it as a Christmas present — Germans can be so thoughtful with their presents). I cannot imagine the givers would have taped it over. That would be bizarre. So Verry himself must have added the tape. Why would he have done that?
I have no way of knowing. I have an inkling. After all, I cannot find those two gruesome pictures of the Germans who had perished in their air-raid shelter. But I know where they are. I think Verry made them disappear. He taped the pages together so he would not be looking at them again. And I’m not going to cut the tape (instead, I already ordered a copy of the 1980 reissue). It’s going to remain in place, not just because of the overall history of this particular copy of the book, but also as a reminder of the power some photographs can have: they can be so gruesome that you never want to see them again.