Olympians, Nazis, and Divers

So of course every photographer shoots within a certain historical context, which ultimately affects their work and how it is received. That seems fairly obvious. However, it was still shocking for me to read about photographer Leni Riefenstahl’s close relationship with Hitler and her influence in Nazi propaganda. Even more fascinating to me was the intense deconstruction of Riefenstahl’s personality and personal history, which seemed to dwarf the importance and significance of her work. Judith Thurman in the New York Times ripped Riefenstahl apart for her egotism, sexual promiscuity, and Nazi sentiments. While this historical and personal contextualization is valuable, it undermines the films and photography of Riefenstahl. Can this context be avoided? Or is it the association with such a terrible regime in our world’s history that makes it unavoidable? I’m not sure. However, I want to approach Riefenstahl’s photography momentarily as ignorant of such context.

As an athlete (swimmer, water polo player, gymnast, diver, you name it) I was struck by the Olympia collection as beautiful representation of the human form in motion. The bodies of these Olympic athletes are comparable to Greek statues which represent perfection. It also helps that the athletes are naked in many of the photographs. Riefenstahl shoots her subjects from a low angle so to appear larger than life and without any visible physical strain. It is a celebration of the human body at its peak. The grainy-ness of her photographs creates a blurry and fantastical surrealism that heightens this celebration and triumph of the body. The high contrast draws attention to the counters of the body and mimics sculpture. I am most drawn to the diving photographs, because I can appreciate and connect with the athleticism at a personal level as a former diver. They are silhouetted against a dramatic sky and seem to soar effortlessly in the air. If only diving were really that easy.

Leni Riefenstahl might have been a highly contested individual with highly contested work, but her Olympia photographs emphasize the beauty of the human body and celebrate the athlete. They’re photographs that almost make me want to start diving again.

Now that’s propaganda.

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