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Subjektive Fotografie

Otto Stinert (1915-1978) gave up a medical career to become an advocate of experimental and personal visions in photography. As a photographer, a teacher, and an organizer of exhibitions, he played a major part in helping German photography recover from the Nazi period.

During the '20s and early '30s, Germany had more than its share of innovative photographers. But many had left the country or been killed by the Nazis, and others were frightened into doing innocuous work. After the war it seemed that older people and organizations, and even the established system of juried photographic exhibitions, had been tainted by collaboration with Hitler. The medium itself was to a considerable extent transformed into a vehicle for propaganda, reduced to precise technique and politically acceptable prettiness.

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Otto Steinert was still a young man when the war ended, and was new to photography. In 1949, he became one of the founders of ''Fotoform,'' a group of experimental-minded photographers. In 1951 and 1954, he organized international exhibitions under the continuing title ''Subjektive Fotografie'' (''Subjective Photography''). Originating in Germany, they were seen in the United States and Japan, as well as Europe.

What Steinert meant by ''subjective'' was that the world of appearances ought to be subordinated to the choices made by the photographer. ''Those commonplace and merely 'beautiful' pictures, which thrive mainly thanks to the charm of some actual object, are thrust into the background,'' he wrote, ''in favor of experiments and fresh solutions.''

Steinert himself was given to dark-room manipulation. In ''Pale Portrait,'' reproduced on this page, he has reversed the light and dark values of the original picture so that his subject's face is now represented by a pattern of white against black. The finished photograph (from the collection of Museum Folkwang in Essen, West Germany) has something of the handmade quality of a drawing.

Few of the pictures he chose to exhibit were so clearly the work of the photographer's hand as this one. What they did have in common was their striving to use a technique based on physics and chemistry as a means of personal expression.

In that respect he and the photographers he championed were different from many avant-gardists of the '20s. During the years immediately after World War I, such abstract painters and photographers as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy thought of themselves as using science to point in the direction of social improvement. The war seemed to have been caused by irrationality; these artists' view was that, if lords spiritual and temporal could be removed from power, and the direction of society entrusted to scientists, engineers, and designers - all honorable people, and rational as well - ours would be a better world.

Whereas Otto Steinert's avant-garde predecessors spoke for centrally directed progress and the magic of technology, he and his friends spoke only for themselves. That, too, can be insufficient; but immediately after the 12-year Reich it seemed very necessary.

''Subjektive Fotografie'' an exhibition based on Otto Steinert's exhibitions of the 1950s, recently ended its run at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is now in Houston (to Dec. 9) and later will go to museums in Germany, Sweden , and Belgium.

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