Willi Ruge’s Parachute Selfie (1931): Pulling the Rug from under the Feet of Control

In 1931, German photojournalist Willi Ruge captured his own parachute jump at the Berlin airfield of Staaken on a camera attached to his belt.[1] I explore how one of the photographs, called Seconds before Landing, challenges strategies of empowerment in urban space, creating the sensation of being powerless.

The photograph opens up a birds-eye view visualising the built environment on the ground. In his study of the urban spaces of film noir, film scholar Edward Dimendberg has illustrated how aerial images function as tools of control and surveillance at the hands of institutional agents such as town planners.[2] While Seconds before Landing sets up this monitoring perspective, it simultaneously undermines that view by registering the jumper-cum-photographer’s free-floating feet just as prominently in the frame. Whereas a controlling gaze places the world at your feet, the picture stresses that the jumper does not even have both of them on the ground. Philosopher Michel de Certeau contends that people navigating through urban space on foot have the power to daily withstand seemingly omnipotent control.[3] But the photograph undercuts such individual empowerment as well: far away from the grounds of the city, the tilted, almost vertical bearing of the feet does not suggest that these shoes are made for walking. The picture leaves it hanging in the air if the jumper will manage to land safely and transform into an urban pedestrian. Negating any claim to control, the photograph, imbued with a pioneer spirit, celebrates the thrill of uncertainty. It invites onlookers to be swept off their feet and to participate in this sensation. Seconds before Landing transforms in the eyes of its viewers, who are safely on the ground, into a spectacle of risk precisely because it subverts the practises of power that are connected to the gaze and feet.

Postscript: Quentin Bajac and Lee Ann Daffner inform us that the jump ended in a broken bone.[4] Neither the camera gaze nor his feet could give Ruge the power to prevent this outcome of the parachute selfie.

[1] Quentin Bajac and Lee Ann Daffner, “Seconds before Landing: Description,” MoMa, accessed April 6, 2015, http://www.moma.org/interactives/objectphoto/objects/91507.html.
[2] Edward Dimendberg, Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004), 46-47.
[3] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (University of California Press, 2011), e.g. 93-98.
[4] Bajac and Daffner, “Seconds before Landing: Description.”