The Compassionate Eye of Lutz Dille

22 mins read

The street is like a stage of everyday life, the public sphere of much of our existence, especially in larger cities where the critical mass of the urban environment easily provides artists with an array of rich visual materials and activities. It is no wonder then that the genre of documentary street photography has evolved into one of the most defining elements of the medium. The streets of New York, Paris and London inspired some of the most iconic photographs created by the medium’s foremost practitioners.

Canadian cities were no less kind to photographers, if less famous than their European or American counterparts. In the 1950s and 1960s, Toronto and Montreal, in particular, experienced a surge of documentary photographic activity on their streets. It was the golden age of street photography, when Sam Tata, John Max, Michel Lambeth, Michael Semak and John Reeves—to name a few—walked the streets, cameras in hand, and incessantly observed and recorded the grandeur of staged spectacle like parades and celebrations, or the subtleties of quotidian life en passant. In the post-war period the country was on a cultural and economic upswing, and documentary photographers helped to solidify a new sense of identity for Canadians. Mass circulation magazines like Star Weekly and the weekend inserts in large daily newspapers regularly published photo stories; the first galleries dedicated exclusively to photography began to be established; and photographic books began to appear.

It was into this ambience of positivism that a young German photographer, Lutz Dille, stepped off the train in Hamilton in 1951, having sailed from Hamburg to Quebec City aboard a converted trooper ship full of immigrants. He arrived with nothing but a few clothes, $30 in cash (a loan from Canadian consular officials in Hanover, Germany, that had to be paid back, together with the ship passage), his precious Leica IIIf camera and his enlarger wrapped in two blankets in a wooden crate. He had no knowledge of English, but the 29-year-old immigrant was endlessly resourceful. According to his daughter Maya Dille, “[My father] was a survivor. He was very good at keeping a pretty good lifestyle on almost zero money.” In time he would become one of the leading documentary photographers in Canada.

Lutz Dille was born in Leipzig into a well-to-do middle class family who prospered in the fur-trade business (on his mother’s side), especially after Hitler’s National Socialists took power in 1933 and the demand for leather for army uniforms increased. His father, a bureaucrat in the postal system, was an amateur photographer who owned a wooden view camera. In his unpublished memoir written in 2002, Dille vividly describes a dramatic family photo session that speaks as much to the complex state of taking photographs, and the expertise which that required, as to the advanced economic state that his bourgeois family enjoyed.

“My father kept [the camera] in a leather-lined travel case, also a wooden tripod, where the camera had to be mounted on… All the moving parts and buttons were made of brass. The lens was an Anastigmatic—he was very proud of it. All of it looked very impressive to me… The day came to have a family photograph taken. There we were, all placed in front of the camera and tripod, my father carefully arranging the magnesium powder on a metal stand next to the camera, a long fuse hanging down at one side, to be lit at the right time, to have the powder explode and light up the scene. My father took his place under a large black cloth behind the camera, focusing on us three, my mother, sister and myself on the matte glass, all in order. The wooden cassette holding the glass plate was inserted, the lens was covered, then the cassette was slid open, we received our very last instructions: ‘Don’t look at the magnesium powder exploding. Do not close your eyes!’ My father looked for his matches…an exciting scene was developing in front of me…he struck a match and lit it with a hanging-down fuse. My father rushed to take his place among us… I was watching the sparkling little flame creeping up to the powder…the little flame turned sideways towards the magnesium…the powder exploded…a bright flash, a slight bang, our family was exposed to the emulsion on the glass plate. Father rushed back, put the lens cover back over the lens and closed the cassette. He developed the exposed plate under a red light in the bathroom. All was fine, only my mother had her eyes closed!”

But these wonderful experiences in his home belied the uneasiness that he increasingly felt after Hitler came to power. He wrote, “All changed. Even the air must have felt different…‘disagreeable’ books were openly burned….Hell started in Leipzig.” The young Dille was horrified when in 1938 Jewish stores had their windows broken en masse, and the government “gave that night of horror a nice name, Kristallnacht [Night of the Crystals].” Worse, he became aware that “the Lewinsons and the Zollfreis were not in their apartments anymore. Did they move away? My parents did not know, and did never talk about them at all…” And what happened to the young painter across the street from the photography atelier where Dille worked? His boss told him, “The Jew doing his degenerate paintings was finally picked up!”

Dille decided that he didn’t want any part of the Nazi master plan, and escaped to Denmark by riding his bicycle to the border. This marked the beginning of a life spent escaping from one situation or another. It would be photography that would provide him a sense of constancy and a life-long refuge. But the Danish authorities handed him over to the German police and, quite rapidly, Dille was arrested, conscripted into the army and sent to the eastern front. He worked as a reconnaissance photographer and photographed Russian territory from a zeppelin.

It was at the front that he produced his first significant photographs and documented Russian peasants fleeing the front near Smolensk. In a classic but somewhat blurry image made in 1943 (that has not been previously published), he brilliantly captured the essence of “refugees in flight.” It is a visual drama of a peasant hurriedly setting off on foot under a menacing dark sky and straining to pull a wagon loaded with the family’s belongings, trailed by a young boy and older women with their prized investments of a cow and a goat tethered to a partially visible wagon alongside. His sense of timing and composition showed that the 21-year-old had a keen eye for the humanistic photographic moment.

After the war Dille attended an art college in Hamburg, but as soon as he had an opportunity, he emigrated to Canada, the New World where he had heard that “a new life was possible.” At first he lived in seedy rooming houses and the Fred Victor Mission. He was touched by the kindness of people who had few material resources but a kind heart. One night, having been brought to the mission by the police—he later recalled that his ride in the back seat of the police vehicle was his “first ride in a big American car”—a fellow roommate, a total stranger, realizing that the foreigner was hungry, immediately reached underneath his pillow, grabbed “two soft slices of soft white bread,” cut a large swath of onion, placed it in the bread and gave it to him to eat. Dille wrote, “from his hands my dinner came into mine.”

Dille cherished these acts of spontaneous kindness, which would later inform his approach when he photographed the more vulnerable members of society. His 1957 photograph of a group of men in a bread line in front of the Scott Mission is a testament to the inequality that exists in society. They are dutifully waiting for the mission’s doors to open in the evening; they are quiet and bent over, tired from wandering in the streets all day in winter, worn out by life, yet accepting of the sad turn of fate that Lady Luck has played on them. All the while, the imposing front end of a Chrysler, its gleaming chrome bumper and grill in the shape of some aggressive fantasy creature that seems to stand as a guard of these wretched, but dignified men…as if to keep them in their place, in their proper station in life. It is a photograph of an intimate world, impenetrable to most people, but not to Dille, who had a unique talent of inviting himself into the worlds of others. His approach was compassionate, always respecting the dignity of those whom society hardly respected.

But he also loved to document the spectacle of the people who might have owned that Chrysler, the well-to-do of Toronto. His “Orangemen’s Parade, 1964” documents two ladies at the Orange Lodge’s parade. It is respectful, yet humorous and coy, and loaded with symbolism. To be sure, the two elderly matrons are bedecked with the accoutrements of the ruling class that they represent: white dresses with frilly summer hats, matching white gloves, pearl necklace and earrings, ornate eyeglasses, and the chain of office of the Orange Lodge. At first they appear as anything but ordinary women, powerful warriors for their cause. But they are also both wearing Brownie cameras around their necks, which one of them is in the act of using, and it is this through this subtle gesture that Dille has masterfully captured the revelatory moment: behind the social façade, they are rather ordinary humans enjoying their moment of staged history in the sunshine. Dille has made their moment his moment, and by extension, our moment as viewers.

He tirelessly roamed the streets with his camera, working in black and white. It was all about “being there,” as he put it in an article written in 2004 by Leslie Ference in the Toronto Star. “For the main part, I prefer to photograph on the street. That’s where I think people are most themselves, where they are their most honest…I mean honest in their behaviour, in their way of being.

“In my photography I like to emphasize the obvious, the expressions, the gestures which I think typify the person or persons I am photographing.

“What do I want of my work? I want the image to move the viewer. I want the viewer to identify in some way with the image…because that’s what my photography is all about. It’s about US.”

Nomadic and restless by nature, Dille travelled widely. Unhappy with Hamilton, he soon moved to Toronto. But in the 1950s, Toronto the Good was not very hospitable to a European temperament (he was once arrested for carrying two bottles of unopened beer in the pocket of his coat as he walked home), and he soon moved to Montreal. He opened a short-lived portrait studio on Stanley Street and met many people at the National Film Board who would later give him freelance work as a cinematographer. But, again, Dille was “a loner, always wanted to operate on the edge of things,” according to his lifelong friend and filmmaker Terence Macartney-Filgate. Needless to say, he moved back to Toronto, which, after an enriching Montreal experience, Macartney-Filgate said, “was like moving back to a penal colony.” He survived by working as a cinematographer for CBC programmes like Man Alive and The Nature of Things.

True to his character, he didn’t stay still very long, and travelled in search of photographs. He produced memorable pictures in Nova Scotia, Mexico, Sweden, Ireland, England, Italy and New York.

In 1961 Dille roamed through Naples, the city that most embodied the pathos of post-war Italy. He immortalized a young teenage boy tethered by a thick rope to a wagon that he pulled, harnessed like a beast of burden. Dille captured the “worker-of-burden” during a momentary pause, as the boy inexplicably craned his neck to look up toward the sky. The gaze in his eyes—brightly lit by the open sky—is full of hope and despair at the same time. It is a face that we have seen before, in the films of the Italian neorealist director Vittorio de Sica. In Dille’s photograph the tension of the boy’s tired and smudged face is juxtaposed against the well-dressed couple casually walking by in the background. The middle class meets the working class in the theatre of the street.

Later, in the hamlet of Meat Cove, N.S., he photographed an elderly woman sitting in a doorway, hands clasped on her lap, her fingers braided together, looking intently at the camera with; her young grandson leans heavily on her chair with his arms clasped tightly, and a penetrating look in his eyes. From the soft light, we can tell that they standing just inside the doorway, on the edge of the street, and they are starkly etched against the darkness of the empty room around them. It’s as if they are framed by time and not by space, connected with each other by the similarity of how she braided her fingers and he entwined his arms. This is the work of a master portraitist, its formality and composition echoing the work of Paul Strand in New England.

His career finally met with considerable success when a monograph of his work was published in 1967 by the NFB, Lutz Dille et son univers / The Many Worlds of Lutz Dille. It was based on an exhibition curated by the legendary Lorraine Monk, and it was the first volume in the ten-volume Image series on Canadian photography. Until then, no other photographer in Canada had ever had a catalogue of the complete exhibition published.

Dille also made a number of short personal films in between his stints as cinematographer for the CBC and the NFB. One of his best known is Johann Strauss Was Here Too, a whimsical fast-sketch of the city of Vienna, composed mostly of people’s faces in cafes, on the street, set to music.

By his own admission, his lifestyle was difficult on his wife, Elizabeth Dille, and their two daughters. In 1980 Lutz Dille left Canada for good and moved to Wales with his second wife, Mary. He taught filmmaking in a college, one of the fewer than four jobs he ever held in his life. In 1986 they moved to a small village in the south of France, where they led a quiet life, gardening, teaching, photographing. His last body of work was a photo essay on the small village of St Pasteur. After his wife Mary died in 2006, he seemed to lose the vigour that he always had, and died in France two years later.

What is his legacy? He created a unique body of documentary photographs that have stood the test of time, and like all great works of art, they have a deeper resonance with the passage of time. His unique talent lay in his ability to produce photographs that mirror our own realities whenever we walk down the street.

Lutz Dille’s photographs are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, the Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliothèque Nationale, and Griffelkunst-Vereinigung, Hamburg, among other places. In 2004, On the Street: Photographs of the 1950s and 1960s by Lutz Dille was published in conjunction with an exhibition curated by Martin Eberle at Stadtisches Museum, Braunschweig, Germany. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held by the Stephen Bulger Gallery in 1998.

He is hardly a household name in Canadian culture, but that is changing. French filmmaker Lucas Vernier is currently making a documentary on Dille called Behind the Yellow Door, produced by L’Atelier documentaire. And the University of Toronto Art Centre recently ran an exhibition of 22 of his images of Toronto, curated by former director Niam O’Laoghaire and intern Parisa Radmanesh.

Vincenzo Pietropaolo has published over a dozen books on social justice issues, in which he often combines photographs with his own original writing. Toronto in Photographs: Fifty Years of People, a retrospective journey in words and images, will be released in May 2022 by Cormorant Books. His next project is a collaborative exploration of queer spaces.

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