In praise of craft

“Organ grinder with the monkey, which entertained the children with tricks, and then collected
money for the organ grinder, and sweets for himself. (1925)” (The captions in
quotation marks were written by Willy Römer on the back of his photos.)

The barrel organ and the organ-grinder seem to have already become a constant companion of Río Wang, as if they were marching up before the curtain between two acts of a Persian operette, to play some sad and untuned melody during the rearrangement of the stage. This organ-grinder also featured already here together with his contemporary and later colleagues from Berlin.

Franz Schubert, Die Winterreise Op. 89. XXIV: The organ-grinder (Der Leiermann). Sung by Dietrich Fischer Dieskau

The photographer, Willy Römer (1887-1979) was one of the most prominent photojournalists in Berlin between the two world wars. He started to learn the profession in 1903, at the age of sixteen, at the first press-photo company of Berlin, the Berliner Illustration-Gesellschaft, and then his master, Karl Delius took him to Paris for four years. In the world war he was a soldier at the Eastern front, but he also brought there his heavy 13×18 camera, and took hundreds of photos in Russian Poland, Belarus and Warsaw’s Jewish quarter, typically not on military actions, but about local life – we will write about them separately. And at the end of 1918, having returned to Berlin, he walked the streets from dawn to dusk, photographing the revolution, including the moment of his own arrest.

Arrest warrant against Willy Römer photographing the revolutionaries,
on the Lindenstraße, 5 January 1919.

Returning home he purchased the Phototek company, founded not much earlier by his colleague Robert Sennecke at Belle-Alliance-Straße 82 in Kreuzberg (today Mehringdamm 58), and after his colleague from Paris, Walter Bernstein became sales manager and co-owner in 1920, they made the company one of the most important press photo agencies of Berlin between the two world wars. Römer and his four “operators” went around the city all the day on the basis of the events chosen in the morning fom the newspapers, and they sent daily 10-12 photos to about 250 newspapers all over the world.

Press photographer Walter Gircke in eye contact with Willy Römer during the reception of the returning German troops at the Brandenburg Gate. Berlin, probably on 10 December 1918.

The prosperity of Phototek was interupted in 1933, when the new system declared the company “Judenfirma” because of Bernstein’s origin, and prohibited the German press to buy photos fom them. The company soon went into bankruptcy, and Römer continued to work as a lonely photographer under difficult conditions.

Willy Römer: The SA calls for the boycott of Jewish shops, Friedrichstraße, 1 April 1933.

But either as the owner of a prestigious press photo company, who can afford to devote a part of the working day to his passion, or as a lonely photographer who, in lack of orders, can deal with his own hobby, Willy Römer always photographed what he loved: the daily life of Berlin. The street life, political events, children’s games, river boats, courtyards, entertainers and bear-leaders. And, of course, organ-grinders.

“Another organ-grinder and another monkey, but they also collect money and sweets (1925)”

We are also accustomed to the fact that the photos of organ grinders have their conventional composition. These are genre scenes, mostly with a worn-looking, comically or nostalgically anachronistic old man and music box, on which the photographer looks in amazement as on the figure of a past age, and he himself does not quite find a place in this world. Römer’s organ-grinder shootings do not follow this cliché. Photographing organ-grinders fitted for him into a larger concept: the detailed documentation of handicrafts in contemporary Berlin.

“Recording a new music on the cylinder after the sheet music with the marking apparatus. (1929)”

The recorded music is actually Bill Murray’s Pucker Up and Whistle from 1921, a piece really fitting to the barrel organ. For its video with subtitles see here

“The insert pins and clips in the pre-drawn cylinder for the new piece ofmusic. (1929)”

The iconography of work started to develop in photography relatively late, around the turn of the century, mainly as a critique of the alienated work in the large industrial factories and in order to show up its alternatives, first through the more or less idealized genre scenes of rural works and traditional crafts, and later through politically charged workers’ representations. However, Willy Römer’s photos on working in Berlin do not fit to any of these trends. He himself grew up in a Berlin artisan family, the son of a tailor, and it seems that he was primarily interested in documenting objectively and in its context the artisanal crafts which in the Berlin of the 20s still gave bread to nearly 300 thousand people, a third of the city’s workers. He captured in detailed photo series the complete work process of bakers, chimney sweepers, the washerwomen of Köpenick, caters, boatmen and fishermen, nail-smiths, file-makers and street vendors.

To these works belongs also that of the organ-grinder, which Römer followed with his camera from the beginning, the preparation of the barrel organ and the inclusion of the tune cylinders to the organizing of the street presentation. His photos represent the organ-grinder not an anachronistic figure, but a master craftsman professionally performing his job, and also present the context of the performances, the collaboration of the organ-grinder, the entertainers and the public.

The nearly 70 thousand-piece photo legacy of Willy Römer, one of the few complete photo archives from the Weimar era, after being offered in vain for sale by his widow and daughter to several Berlin museums, was eventually purchased by Diethart Kerbs, the recently deceased renowned photo historian of the arts college of Berlin-Charlottenburg. He published a first selection of them in thirty thematic booklets between 1983 and 1991 with the title Edition Phototek at the Dirk Nishen publisher in Kreuzberg. The first volume of the series presented precisely the organ-grinders. Diethart Kerbs writes about them in the postscript of the booklet:

“At a time when there were no radios, record players and tape recorders, and the TV was not yet invented, the organ-grinders and other courtyard and street musicians mediated sensual pleasures for the ears of broad social layers. The sweet syrup of light tunes on the back bread of everyday life offered a welcome occasion to look out from the window, to come out in front of the store or workshop door, to run down to the court, to take a break, to keep a neighborly chat: music as a social event. The organ-grinder brought the goods of euphony for free in the backyards, and had to ask for the fee that was thrown to them in the form of small coins out of the window. They had to play together a living on long walks through the city.

The organ-grinders had two classes: an upper class, who had their own barrel organs, and a lower class, who had to borrow the equipment for a rental fee.The focus of organ construction and rental was in the north of Berlin. There lived mainly workers and artisans, many of them immigrants from Eastern European counties, but also from Italy. The Italians of northeastern Berlin included the Bacigalupo family, who founded in 1877 their barrel organ factory at Schönhauser Allee 74, and later moved it into 74a. In these workshops they manufactured, repaired, sold and rented the barrel organs.”

Willy Römer’s photos were rediscovered in recent years. In 2004, the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, and then the Museum der Stadt Wien organized an exhibition of them, and they have since released several albums. Soon we will also write on some of his other subjects.

“Organ-grinder on the skating rink. When there was yet no radio music from the loudspeakers, the Berlin youth was contented with the traditional barrel organ music while skating. And it went well. (1912)”

2 comentarios:

Lloyd Dunn dijo...

I notice that the song being transcribed onto cylinder by the moustachioed gentleman above is an American tune “Pucker up and Whistle”, which I have never heard of before, yet I was able to find it on YouTube: (, recorded in 1921 by Bill Murray, a very popular singer of the era.

Thanks, as always, for bringing us these wonderful artefacts!

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Lloyd! It’s a great finding. I have now included the music in the text.