Kicken Berlin will devote its first exhibition of 2010 to a selection of East German photographers. Represented in East Side Stories: German Photographs 1950s-1980s are Ursula Arnold, Sibylle Bergemann, Arno Fischer, Ute und Werner Mahler, Roger Melis, Helga Paris, Evelyn Richter as well as Gundula Schulze Eldowy – committed art photographers who achieved their own modes of expression outside the official aesthetic. F.C. Gundlach’s fashion photography from 1950s and 1960s West Berlin will be on view in the exhibition space Kicken II.
Up until the early 1970s, the cultural officers of the German Democratic Republic viewed photography not as an art medium but rather as a means of providing affirmative and idealized images of life. Personal viewpoints were not welcome. Photography that forcefully “grew out of the self-assigned task of documenting what (one) felt was worth capturing,” as Evelyn Richter put it, had to remain secret.
Arno Fischer (1927) and Evelyn Richter (1930) belong to those who pointed the way toward a subjective-narrative, human- centered photography in the 1950s. Key figures in the East German art photography scene, opinion shapers, and teachers at Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst/ Academy of Visual Arts, they influenced a form of art photography oriented toward the social-documentary “human interest” tradition. Their stance combined social participation with a commitment to critical observation from a personal point of view – as in Fischer’s series Situation Berlin (1953-60), with its symbolically dense snapshots of the divided city.
Important influences on the development of independent photography in East Germany included the work of the Magnum agency (from 1947 on), Edward Steichen’s exhibition The Family of Man (1955) as well as Robert Frank’s radically subjective street photography.
Pictures of people and portraits are at the exhibition’s core. Ursula Arnold (1929) observed her sometimes melancholy, sometimes odd contemporaries on the streets of Berlin and Leipzig, and on Berlin’s S-Bahn. She gave up working as a photojournalist early in order to avoid having to make concessions to the dictates for enthusiasm imposed from above. Helga Paris (1938) took portraits of rebellious Berliner Jugendliche/ Berlin Youths (1981-82), approaching her subjects with seriousness and thoughtfulness, and concentrating fully on them as individuals. She, too, had the self-professed goal of depicting people authentically in their everyday contexts.
Sibylle Bergemann (1941) made a name for herself as a sensitive portraitist, fashion photographer, and observer of the urban landscape. Das Denkmal/The Monument (1977-86), her long-term study of the assembly of the Marx-Engels sculpture, appears, with its hovering, headless sculptural fragments to emblematically anticipate the collapse of communism.
In the Berlin of the late 1970s and early 1980s Gundula Schulze Eldowy (1954) found the setting for scenes that are as drastic as they are quotidian in the series Berlin. In einer Hundenacht/ Berlin: in a Dog’s Night (1977-89) and Aktportraits/ Nude Portraits (1983-86). As no other East German photographer before her, she shows with unsparing frankness the loneliness and vulnerability of her subjects but also their dignity and self confidence. Her early photographs reveal an aesthetic and thematic debt to the work of Diane Arbus.
Independent of each other, Ute and Werner Mahler turned their unpretentious gazes on the East German way of life. Ute Mahler (1949) thematized family arrangements and group dynamics in her series Zusammen Leben/Living Together (1972-1986). Werner Mahler (1950) documented a year in the Thuringian village Berka (1977) - and repeated his studies in the late 1990s after reunification. An additional focus of both photographers was fashion photography (published for the most part in the magazine for fashion and culture Sibylle) that offered opportunities for “productively expanding the genre” (Bernd Lindner).