Dr Sarah James

Email: sarah.james@ucl.ac.uk
Dr Sarah James

Sarah teaches courses on the relationship between art and photography in the 20th and 21st centuries; the history of photography; art, culture and the Cold War, and Eastern European art. She received a B.A. in Social and Political Sciences and the History of Art from the University of Cambridge (2001), and an M.A. (2002) and PhD (2007) in the History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. She was an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin (2008-2009), and a Lecturer at the University of Oxford (2009-2010). Sarah has published numerous articles, chapters and catalogue essays on photography and contemporary art. She also writes on contemporary art as a critic, contributing regularly to the magazines Frieze, Photoworks, Art Review and Art Monthly.

Sarah’s current research interests include: German photography; photo-essays and documentary practices; East German art, and the relationship between aesthetics and politics in contemporary practice. Her book Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, was published by Yale University Press in 2013. The book begins in 1955 - the year that Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man exhibition opened in West Berlin, and Bertolt Brecht’s photo-book The War Primer was published in East Berlin. It uses these two landmark events in postwar photographic history to examine a series of  documentary projects from East and West Germany which emerged from the 1950s to the 1990s, including exhibitions, photo-essays, private archives and photo-books. The way in which photography is deployed in a serial or sequential manner - relying on the affects, experiences and political identities produced either through the accumulation of sameness, or the violent juxtaposition of difference - is investigated. Postwar German photography is relocated in relation to Soviet, American and French photographic developments, the specific cultural experiences of the Cold War, and the shifting politics of German identity. Further, the book reconsiders the relationship between prewar Weimar photographic culture and the postwar photography of the Cold War period. Exploring the collectivist and individualist identities forged under communism and consumerism, it attempts to reanimate the political agencies embodied in the different models of seeing articulated by each photographic project.

Sarah is currently working on two new book projects. The first, provisionally titled Photography Against Itself: The Militant & the Mainstream  will explore the 1940s, 50s and 60s work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edith Tudor-Hart, Erwin Blumenfeld and William Klein, considering their photographic output in relation to the illustrated press, photojournalism, fashion photography and cinema. These practitioners shared different degrees of Leftist political commitment in this period and used their photography as a means of deploying their politics, yet they also worked commercially, producing material for mainstream audiences. The book will explore the production, dissemination and reception of their photography, as a means of re-examining the relationship between the Left and populist forms of cultural production as well as the photographic production of militant/mass/popular audiences. Using this series of case studies, it will attempt to rethink the mobility of photographic images, and the ways in which even images deployed in magazines with reactionary, conservative or apolitical agendas might also be capable (whether intentionally or not) of going against the grain of their contexts and radically subverting their desired framing and meanings. 

The second project, provisionally titled Paper Revolutions: The Unofficial Art of East Germany, will explore the paper-based practices - from maquettes, drawings, concrete poetry, conceptual practices, to mail art and photomontages - of a marginalised group of artists who worked from the 1950s to the 1980s under really existing socialism in the German Democratic Republic. With chapters on Hermann Glöckner, Gerhard Altenbourg, Carlfriedrich Claus, Robert Rehfeldt and Jürgen Schieferdecker, it will contextualise their experiments in relation to the role played by paper-based networks of correspondence and samizdat literature, and consider their work in both its insular and international dimensions. It will problematise the reading of such artists as non-conformist, unofficial or disengaged by examining their relation to the State in more detail, and by exploring the Marxist, materialist, dialectical, socialist and utopian aspects of their works, alongside the complex and inconsistent reception of the historical avant-gardes in East Germany.

Sarah is interested in supervising doctoral research on any aspect of photographic or documentary practice; German modern, postwar and contemporary art; artistic and cultural production during the Cold War. Research on contemporary art and projects which engage with photographic theory or the Frankfurt School would also be welcome.

Selected Recent Publications:


Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain, Yale University Press, 2013 (nominated for the Robert Motherwell Book Award)

Book Chapters/Essays:

- ‘Edmund Kesting & the Abstract Face of Conformity in East Germany’, in The Ethics of Seeing: German Photography Reconsidered, eds., Paul Betts, Jennifer Evans and Stefan-Ludwig Hoffmann, forthcoming, Berghan, 2014.

– ‘Modernism & Photography’, in Companion to Photography, ed., Stephen Bull, forthcoming, WileyBlackwell, 2013.

- ‘A Family Affair: Photography, the Cold War and the Domestic Sphere’, Family Politics: Photoworks Annual, Photoworks, 2013, pp. 166-77.

- ‘Maggie and the Fairytale of the Free Market’, Chateau Despair: Lisa Barnard, Gost, London, 2013, pp. 56-63.

- ‘Making an Ugly World Beautiful: Morality and Aesthetics in the Aftermath’, Memory of Fire: The War of Images and Images of War, Julian Stallabrass, ed., Photoworks, 2013.

- ‘Subject, Object, Mimesis: The Aesthetic World of the Bechers’ Photography’ eds., Diarmuid Costello and Margaret Iversen, Photography After Conceptual Art, WileyBlackwell, 2010, pp. 50-69. (reprinted article, 2009)


– ‘Hermann Glöckner: Waste as a Figure of Thought’, forthcoming New German Critique.

‘A Post-Fascist Family of Man? Cold War Humanism, Democracy and Photography in Germany’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 35, Issue 5, November 2012.

‘A Socialist Realist Sander? Comparative Portraiture as a Marxist Model in the German Democratic Republic’, Grey Room, 47, Spring 2012, pp. 38-59.

– 'Subject, Object, Mimesis: The Aesthetic World of the Bechers’ Photography’, Art History, Vol. 32, No. 5, December 2009, pp. 874-893.

‘Photography’s Theoretical Blind Spots: Looking at the German Paradigm’, Photographies, Vol. 2, No. 2, September 2009, pp. 255-70.

 Art Press Essays & Criticism:

- ‘House of Dada: Erwin Blumenfeld’, Frieze DE (German and English), Issue 9, April-May, 2013, pp. 84-91.

- ‘Carlfriedrich Claus: Speaking Utopia’s Language’, Saxony – Works from the Deutsche Bank Collection, Museum der bildenden Künste Leipzig, March 2013.

– ‘Burkhardt von Harder’s Archive Mirror’, Photoworks, Vol. 18, Spring/Summer 2012, pp. 4-17.

- ‘Interview on War Primer II: Broomberg and Chanarin', Photoworks, Vol. 17, Autumn/Winter, 2011, pp. 22-28.

– 'Maggie, Maggie, Maggie’, Photoworks, 15, Autumn/Winter, Oct 2010, pp. 72-79.


- Edith Tudor-Hart, Camera Austria, forthcoming 2013.

- ‘The Whole Earth & 1968’, Frieze, October, 2013.

- ‘Mass Observation’, Aperture, August 2013.

- ‘Karl Blossfeldt’, Aperture, June 2013.

- ‘Mishka Henner’, Frieze, Issue 155, June/July, 2013.

- ‘Artist Placement Group’, Frieze, Issue 153, March 2013.

- ‘Brighton Photo Biennial 2012’, Frieze, Issue 152, Jan-February 2013.

- ‘Bauhaus: Art as Life’, Frieze, Issue 149, September 2012.

- ‘Carlfriedrich Claus’, Frieze, Issue 141, September 2011.

- ‘The Liverpool Biennial’, Frieze, Issue 135, Nov-December 2010.

- ‘The Art of Two Germanies/Cold War Cultures’, Art Monthly, No. 332, Jan 2010.

- ‘Supportico Lopez’, Frieze, Issue 125, September 2009.

- ‘Source Codes’, Art Monthly, No. 329, September 2009.

- ‘Micol Assael’, Art Review, Issue 34, September 2009.

- ‘Oliver Richon’, Frieze, Issue 123, May 2009.

- ‘Kasia Fudakowski’ www.frieze.com, 23 March 2009.

- ‘Notation at ADK’, Frieze, Issue 120, Jan/February 2009.

Recent Conference/Seminar Papers and Invited Lectures:

- ‘Photography/Politics Against the Grain’, Historical Materialism, SOAS, 9 Nov 2012.

- ‘Karl Pawek’s Postfascist Family of Man: A Transformed World’, Photographic History Research Centre, De Montfort University, Leicester, 15 October 2013.

- ‘Edmund Kesting & The Abstract Face of Comformity in East Germany’, Eastern European Photography Seminar, Tate in collaboration with the Archaeology of Photography Foundation Warsaw, Tate Modern, 6 June 2013.

- ‘Photography Against the Grain: LIFE & the Family of Man on the Other Side of the Wall’, The Ethics of Seeing: 20th Century German Photography Reconsidered, German Historical Institute London, May 23-25 2013.

- ‘Hermann Glöckner and Eva Hesse’s Studio Works on the Table: Waste as a Figure of Thought’, Drawing-Sculpture-Painting: Eva Hesse in Europe 1965, UCL, 2 Feb 2013.

- ‘Ghosts in the Machine: Cartier-Bresson’s Corporate Humanism?’, Historical Materialism, SOAS, 8 Nov 2012.

- ‘Ghosts in the Machine’, at Newport History of Photography: 100 Years, Newport University, 30 Nov 2012.

- ‘A Postfascist Family of Man? Karl Pawek & Ernst Jünger’s Transformed World’, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 18 April 2013.

- ‘A Socialist Realist Sander: When the Individual Ceases To Exist - Comparative Portraiture as a Marxist Model in East Germany’, Historical Materialism, SOAS, Nov 12 2011.

- ‘The Family of Man’s German Images: Humanism after the Holocaust and the Politics of Democracy in West Germany’, at Viewing and Reading the Photographs of The Family of Man, organised by Ariella Azoulay, Durham Centre for Advanced Photographic Studies, 17 June 2011.

- ‘A Socialist Realist Sander? ‘Face of Our Time’ as a Model in the German Democratic Republic’, at the August Sander Symposium, University of Edinburgh and National Galleries of Scotland, 13 May 2011.

- ‘Scratching the History of Men: the Real, the Ideal and the Abstract’, part of the ‘Showcasing Art History’ series, Courtauld Institute of Art, London, Dec 7 2011.

- ‘Scratching the History of Men: Humanism, Photography, Art History, and the Politics of the Subject in a Divided Germany’, Art Histories, Cultural Studies and the Cold War, University of London and Instittue of Germanic & Romance Studies, 24 Sept 2010.

- ‘Socialist Postmodernism? The Dialectical Photography of Evelyn Richter', Research Seminar Series, History of Art Department, University of Oxford, 2 Nov 2009.

- 'The Ghosts of Modernism: Photography on Both Sides of the Berlin Wall’, Do Not Refreeze Symposium German Embassy, London, 21 Jan 2009.


A list of publications is available from UCL's Institutional Research Information Service via the Iris link below.