Käthe Buchler: Women’s Work

For German photographer Käthe Buchler (1876-1930) World War One granted access to a new social landscape. The photographs exhibited in Beyond the Battlefields depict life away from the front line, and in particular, the women and children who maintained Germany’s economic and social foundations in the absence of their fathers, brothers, and husbands.

Many of Buchler’s female subject are shown in caring roles, nursing recuperating soldiers or orphaned children. Others are engaged in various forms of labour, ranging from sorting shoes to selling milk. One thing that marks these images apart from many other images of women in the early twentieth century is that they are not located in a domestic setting. Women’s labour, which is so frequently associated with the home, is here relocated to public and professional settings. In this way, Buchler’s images celebrate the extent to which war made women more visible, and drew them out of their domestic prisons.

buchler2All images © Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/Deposit Stadtarchiv Braunschweig

Declan Connolly (2018) describes Buchler’s wartime photographs as “images of stillness in a time of agitated uncertainty, where any degree of normality suddenly becomes poetic.” The calmness of Buchler’s work does indeed provide a stark contrast to the chaos and brutality depicted in many WWI photographs, but it is not only this contrast that makes these images noteworthy. The “normality” observed by Connolly in these images is not business-as-usual, rather, it is a new normal that accommodates changes to roles, traditions, that have been necessitated by the war. The direct cause of the disruption – the war – is not directly depicted, but nonetheless its impact is the subject of all of her wartime photographs, without exception. Her Women in Men’s Jobs, despite being engaged in mundane and laborious activities, all have a glint in their eye that hints at a recognition that their circumstances and opportunities are extraordinary for the period. In photographs depicting National Women’s Service, despite being outnumbered and overwhelmed by the men and children who are in their care, a wartime spirit is reflected in the defiant smirks worn by Buchler’s female subjects.

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Buchler’s human subjects have had to adjust to a new normality that is substantially different from the life that they led during peacetime, and appear to do so enthusiastically. Buchler’s photographs of Women in Men’s Jobs seem to capture these women’s commitment to their new roles. These women don’t just demonstrate their ability to carry out tasks previously assigned to men, but more than that, they appear so devoted to their new roles that they have embodied the men that they have replaced. Two Conductresses (below), dressed in men’s uniforms, pose beside their vehicle, hands in pockets, with the jaunty, proud, posture that one might more commonly associate with their male counterparts. A Carrier, also in men’s workwear, labours under the burden of a heavy sack, exhibiting more pride in her ability work than in her appearance. A Window Cleaner poses with a ladder slung over her shoulder, and a pail resting casually in the crease of her elbow. All of these women appear, in their work, dress, and posture, to have assumed the roles and identities of the men who they have replaced.

buchler1All images © Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/Deposit Stadtarchiv Braunschweig

We might speculate that the glee on the faces of Buchler’s subjects reflects their excitement at being photographed. Why else would mundane tasks inspire such enthusiasm?  It is important to acknowledge that these mundane activities were recorded in extraordinarily hard times, when opportunities for happiness were few and far between. Children Queuing to Deliver Recovered Glass Bottles (below) might be engaged in a tiresome chore, but they also have reason to celebrate. They have been successful in their task, and await their reward. Similarly, the smiles on the faces of the Postwoman (1 and 2) might reflect a satisfaction in the work that they are performing while photographed, which is, for them, not only a novel experience but also an opportunity to prove their worth. It may be that Buchler has not simply inspired happiness in her subjects, as a response to the novelty of being photographed, but that she has captured a wartime spirit that existed even without her.

buchler3All images © Estate of Käthe Buchler – Museum für Photographie Braunschweig/Deposit Stadtarchiv Braunschweig

The long-term liberating effects of the war are evident in Buchler’s later photographs too. In her autochrome photographs of the late 1920s we see similarly able women and girls, engaged in labour. Although many of Buchler’s post-war colour photographs indicate that Bechler herself returned to domestic settings, with subjects including vases and floral arrangments, she also photographed landscapes, and, significantly, women at work within those landscapes.

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Reference
Connolly, D. (2018), Review: Beyond the Battlefields at Grosvenor Gallery, Open Eye Gallery

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