Leni Riefenstahl’s “Runners,” 1936

Over the course of the Spring 2016 semester, students in ART 3573: History of Photography are visiting the OSU Museum of Art four times, seeing over 65 works from the permanent collection up close. Each visit, they select one work to research further. This spring and summer, the blog features outstanding examples of students’ research and writing about the works they chose. Our goals are to contribute to public awareness of the OSUMA’s photography collection, and to increase our knowledge about that collection. This week’s post is by Paitton Callery.

Leni Riefenstahl’s photograph, Runners (Nocturnal Start of Decathlon, 1,500m Race), is related to her documentary film of the 1936 Berlin Olympic games, Olympia. The photograph is a gelatin silver print, and was given as a gift to the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art by Robert Flynn Johnson. Riefenstahl’s photograph serves to provide a romanticized perspective of the Nazi party’s fascist ideology, an important contextual component for contemporary audiences to consider. If misinterpreted as historical reality, the piece’s intended purpose, and ultimately its cultural impact, is missed completely.

Leni Riefenstahl, "Runners (Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race)," 1936. Gelatin silver print, 8 ¼ x 14 ½ inches. Gift of Robert Flynn Johnson, 2011.010.002.

Leni Riefenstahl, “Runners (Nocturnal Start of Decathlon 1,500m Race),” 1936. Gelatin silver print, 8 ¼ x 14 ½ inches. Gift of Robert Flynn Johnson, 2011.010.002.

Riefenstahl was a driving force behind the Nazi Party’s propaganda in the media, primarily through film. Her film Olympia and her famous Triumph of the Will captured the mass pageantry being put on by the Germans in order to show off what they considered to be an ideal, superior culture. Adolf Hitler wanted to convince his own people, not only the rest of the world, that Germany was impressive in all areas across the board: athletically, artistically, and certainly militarily. For this reason, Hitler put out an extraordinary effort to make the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin the largest, most efficient games the world had seen. He made it Riefenstahl’s responsibility to capture this event well so that the Germans could push their agenda through visual media. This is significant because at this point in time news and propaganda media was still extremely limited in terms of mediums. Newspapers and radio shows could not portray such an event effectively because they lacked the ability to visualize the motion and athleticism being performed. Film, and the related photography, was an obvious choice even though each was a relatively new technology.

The photograph shows a flash of two white males engaged in a race, leaving only a blur of black in the background to highlight the athletes’ bodies in motion. It gives the sense that the figures are caught in the moment, and in fact, they are. Without considering historical context, the photograph could be seen in a romantic, “caught a fleeting moment”-type perspective. However, this romantic aesthetic of the film aims towards presenting Riefenstahl’s intended message about the fantasized, perfect form of the Aryan athletic body. During the early 20th century, the pseudoscience of eugenics had a popular following, and became a core belief of the Nazi Party’s ideology.

Eugenics is a theory about enhancing the quality of human genetics drawn from social Darwinism. It takes a “survival of the fittest” stance on the progress of the human race, claiming that certain deficiencies and unwanted characteristics could be eliminated through restrictions on breeding only the most “fit” individuals. The Germans took this theory and applied it to their personal brand of fascism in an incredibly racist and xenophobic manner. This is the kind of ideological propaganda that Riefenstahl was intending to promote in her photograph Runners, and in her film Olympia as a whole, but the style of filming she utilized portrays those views in a less harsh, romanticized light. She did this in order to appeal to her target audiences. In Olympia, Riefenstahl uses the Greek origins of the Olympic games to connect the aestheticism of classical human forms to those that the Nazi Party idealized, actually transforming these statues into live Aryan bodies.

This image allows us to see how both film and photography were put to use in a world that was advancing technologically. The particular medium used to produce this image, the gelatin silver print, was the dominant process in photography from the late 19th century through much of the 20th century. This coincides with the German’s preoccupation with becoming the most modern people in terms of science and culture; of course they would use the best and most efficient method of documentation available. The realistic nature of photography and film was still a relatively new experience compared to traditional visual media, which made it difficult for viewers to separate the realities and the romanticized elements of the Nazi Party’s intentions. While it is important to take into account the medium and overall aesthetic of the image, a contemporary audience would need to view this work within its historical context to fully process the impact of the photograph and to comprehend that the message behind it promotes an aspect of Germany’s fascist beliefs; a mindset that fueled violent, unforgivable crimes against humanity during the Second World War.

Works Referenced:

“Eugenics.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia (2015): 1p. 1. Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Hirsch, Robert. Seizing the Light: A History of Photography. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Print.

Mcfee, Graham, and Alan Tomlinson. “Riefenstahl’s Olympia: Ideology and Aesthetics in the Shaping of the Aryan Athletic Body.” The International Journal of the History of Sport 16.2 (1999): 86-106. EBSCOhost. Web. 28 Feb. 2016.

Further Reading:

Mitra Abbaspour, “Spectacle and Spirit: 1930s Photographs of Olympians” on Inside/Out, a blog by the Museum of Modern Art.


About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
This entry was posted in permanent collection, student research, student writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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