Chapter 43. The Case of Leni and the Nuba
My client, an elderly professional photographer, some years ago acquired this black-and-white photograph (about 4 by 5 inches in size) of a young male member of the Nuba people of southern Sudan. It was taken by internationally renowned celebrity photographer Leni Riefenstahl (19022003). Whether my client received this as a gift from Riefenstahl or was given it by someone else in recognition of his contribution to photography, he cant quite recall, but it is signed With kind regards, Leni Riefenstahl.
Whats particularly interesting about this image is the ideological interconnection that exists between the subject and the photographer based on issues relating to revival and survival.
Leni Riefenstahl (born Helene Bertha Amalie Riefenstahl in Berlin) took this portrait of the Nuba tribesman while she was living in Sudan from the early 1960s to the late 1970s. As a film director, photographer, actress and dancer, she had gained notoriety for collaborating with the Nazi Party when she directed Nazi propaganda films during the Second World War. Her best-known work of that period was a film entitled Triumph of the Will, which brought her to prominence in the Third Reich. She became a personal favourite of Adolf Hitler.
After the war, Riefenstahls celebrity relationship with the Third Reich negatively affected her career and she was forced to reinvent herself. She turned to still photography, eventually producing a photographic journal of the Nuba, which was later published in book form in 1973.
Interesting to note is how Riefenstahls rise to celebrity status as a well-known photographer coincided in part with her photographic documentation of the demise of the Nuba in southern Sudan. Her ethnographic images captured a way of life that was quickly disappearing as meanwhile her own popularity as a celebrity photographer was again quickly increasing. Also interesting is this connection between photographer and subject: while Riefenstahls most famous film Triumph of the Will alluded to Modernist notions of triumph, megalomania and the heroic, here was her photographic essay of the Nuba supporting Post-Modernist sensibilities of the wrongness of cultural disappearance, assimilation and decline.
An art objects celebrity association has long been a source of prestige that often translates into increased intrinsic commercial value. The fact that an item was once owned, painted, sculpted or photographed by a well-known person adds cachet to the item and hints at a vicarious connection between that person and the next owner of the item. In a sense, that association is similar in intent to the selfie with celebrity, where the digital image-taker tries to suggest he or she has a close relationship with the celebrity.
A copy of the photographic print shown here was in a portfolio of 30 prints of the Nuba (each 22.8 by 16.9 inches in size) that most recently sold at Christies Paris for $99,203 USD.
One wonders if the celebrity association with the images had a bearing on the sale price.
Next: The Case of Mary the Holy Mother of Light