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Shuttered Society

Helen WhittleOctober 16, 2012

A new exhibition in Berlin documents over four decades of art photography as it developed in the German Republic. Including works by over 34 different photographers, it is the most comprehensive show of its kind.

Matthias Leupold, In the Cinema / Part II (1983)
Image: Matthias Leupold

"The Shuttered Society: Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989" is a new exhibition at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin. It is the world's first comprehensive exhibition of art photography in communist East Germany.

Shuttered Society is comprised of 250 photographs by 34 photographers which critically reflect on GDR society and illustrate the artistic ambitions of photographers operating under the oppressive socialist regime.

The exhibition shows the different aspects of photographic practice and its reception across four decades, and includes detailed biographies of the 34 photographers as well as a chronology of the development of cultural policy in the GDR.

Click through the pages to view a selection of images from the exhibition.

Jens Rötzsch, Berlin (East) 1989 - Whitsunday Meeting of the FDJ - Stadion der Weltjugend (1989)
Jens Rötzsch, Berlin (East) 1989 - Whitsunday Meeting of the FDJ - Stadion der Weltjugend (1989)Image: Jens Rötzsch

Colorful metaphors

German photographerJens Rötzsch was born in Leipzig in 1959. After completing almost four years of compulsory military service, he studied photography at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig.

This image is part of a series documenting a meeting of the Free German Youth (FDJ) in Berlin. The Free German Youth was the official communist youth movement of the GDR for young people between the ages of 14 and 25. Around 75 percent of the East German population were members of the FDJ, which was set up with the aim of instilling communist values in up-and-coming generations.

While the exhibition focuses on the aesthetic qualities of the images, many of the works featured in the show are also powerful historical records of daily life in the GDR. Rötzsch's images are posited as color-drenched metaphors for very real societal structures, capturing a country on the brink of dissolution.

Rötzsch has documented the demise of the German Democratic Republic and the new start after reunification. His work has been published in TIME, Newsweek, New York Times Magazine and National Geographic, among others. Rötzsch later studied at the Academy of Design in Budapest from 1987-89 before moving to Berlin, where he now lives and works.

Peter Oehlmann, Untitled from the series "The City," (1987)
Peter Oehlmann, Untitled from the series "The City," (1987)Image: Peter Oehlmann Sammlung Berlinische Galerie, Berlin

Gray days

Peter Oehlmann was born in Altenburg in 1953 and studied photography in Leipzig. Like the majority of contemporaries, Oehlmann viewed the GDR with disillusionment.

This dark, slightly minimalistic image is taken from a series titled "Graulandbilder," or "Gray Country Images." It depicts the masses of social housing in Berlin in 1987, reducing the buildings to a uniform series of shapes and forms, drained of color and in which all marks of individuality are flattened or erased.

In 1988, Oehlmann exhibited the series together with the color-saturated works of Jens Rötzsch in Leipzig. "The clearing and the temporary ban on the exhibition by the Stasi and the Volkspolizei back then proved to be unintentional but highly effective PR measure and bestowed upon us record numbers of visitors," Oehlmann wrote on his website.

In 1993, Oehlmann co-found the ZeitOrt Bilddokumentation photographer's collaborative dealing with the documentation of the architectural and environmental transformation of rural and urban areas until 1999. He went on to co-found BerlinPhotoWorkshops, an initiative sharing knowledge about photography through workshops and seminars.

Christian Borchert, Family W. (Policeman, Assembly Worker) (1983)
Christian Borchert, Family W. (Policeman, Assembly Worker) (1983)Image: SLUB / Deutsche Fotothek Dresden Berlinische Galerie

The order of things

Christian Borchert was born in Dresden in 1942. He originally studied film laboratory technology at the Engineering School for Film Technology in Potsdam-Babelsberg, completing a training course in photography in 1967.

Inspired by the posthumously published work of German photographer August Sander's (1876-1964), "Men without Masks," depicting various classes of people in German society, Borchert began producing portraits of artists and writers such as Heiner Müller.

Borchert's photograph "Family W. (Policeman, Assembly Worker)," taken in 1983, is a clinical, ambivalent portrait of a family in the GDR, clearly inspired by Sander's earlier documentation of stratified German society from 1910-1938.

One of his most important projects was the documentation of the reconstruction of the Semperoper in Dresden, for which he took around 10,000 photographs. "Distance makes clarity possible. Distance does not mean foreignness, rather dignity," Borchert said.

After German reunification, the photographer continued to document the incongruent remains of what was left of GDR culture. Borchert died as a result of a bathing accident in Berlin in 2000.

Matthias Leupold, In the Cinema / Part II (1983)
Matthias Leupold, In the Cinema / Part II (1983)Image: Matthias Leupold / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2012

Staged reality

Matthias Leupold studied Visual Communication at Berlin's University of the Arts (UdK) and has worked as a freelance photographer since 1985.  His somewhat comical, striking image "In the Cinema" was taken in a packed movie theater in 1983.

Fascinated by both film and photography, Leupold's works are a mixture of both real and staged scenes, engaging with themes such as loneliness, stagnation, homecoming, and disappearance.

Alongside works by other GDR artists and photographers, Leupold's photographs were included in the exhibition "Transitory Society: Portraits and Scenes 1980-1990" at Berlin's Academy of the Arts in 2009.

"Staged photography is a tool to realize my artistic intentions. The technical medium photography allows for either fixating or transforming the past, present or already enunciated situations," Leupold wrote.

Erasmus Schröter, Young Man with Glasses (1985)
Erasmus Schröter, Young Man with Glasses (1985)Image: Erasmus Schröter

Color blocks

Born in Leipzig in 1956, German photographer Erasmus Schröter left the German Democratic Republic in 1985. Settling in Hamburg, Schröter worked for a range of mainstream journalistic publications including the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel and Stern.

Both light and color play an integral role in the pictorial language of Erasmus Schröter's photographs, which are often characterized by garish blocks of color.

Schröter's photograph "Young Man with Glasses" was taken in Leipzig the year he left the GDR. With its unusually muted tones, the starkly lit photograph captures the fashion of the period in a way that was strikingly modern at the time.

Matthias Hoch, Halle an der Saale II (1988)
Matthias Hoch, Halle an der Saale II (1988)Image: Matthias Hoch / VG Bild-Kunst Bonn, 2012

Deserted landscapes

Born in Radebeul in 1958, Matthias Hoch studied photography in Leipzig - the city in which he currently lives and works.

Hoch came to prominence with a series photographs titled "Bahnhöfe" ("Train Stations"), taking in cities throughout the GDR in 1988. "Halle / Rooms II," pictured, is taken from the series. The photograph depicts a rather grim looking canteen in a train station in the city of Halle, near Leipzig.

"Functional public spaces have always held a peculiar fascination for me - I feel attracted and repelled by them at the same time. Here you can find utilitarian architecture and a vernacular aesthetic in condensed form. I avoid spectacular camera angles, preserving a human scale and perspective by instead photographing what I see at eye level," Hoch wrote of the series of almost entirely deserted public spaces.

Hoch's works are featured public and private collections around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and Bremen's Kunsthalle.

Ulrich Wüst, Berlin (1982)
Ulrich Wüst, Berlin (1982)Image: Ulrich Wüst

Transitory spaces

German photographer Ulrich Wüst (b. 1949, Magdeburg) originally trained as an urban planner in Weimar. In 1972 he moved to East Berlin, where he worked as an urban planner and later as a picture editor.

Wüst is best known for his photo-essays documenting transitory urban spaces both before and after German reunification, featuring scenes in which the past often collides with the future. Wüst's black-and-white series of works, "Berlin Mitte" (1995-1997), depicts the changing face of the central Berlin district and reflects his preoccupation with the transformation of urban spaces in post-war Germany.

His black-and-white image, "Berlin" (1982), is taken from the series "City Images." As is typical of Wüst's work, the image depicts a cityscape, almost - but not totally - devoid of people, highlighting the formal qualities of the city's built forms. 

Wüst has worked as a freelance photographer since 1984, exhibiting his work internationally. In 2000, he was awarded the Helen Abbott Prize for his photographic works. He currently lives and works in Berlin.

Sibylle Bergemann, Susi (1976)
Sibylle Bergemann, Susi, Rathenow (1976)Image: Nachlass Sibylle Bergemann

Haunting portraits

Sibylle Bergmann was born in Berlin during the Second World War. After training as a saleswoman, she went on to work as an editor at the German culture and lifestyle monthly Das Magazine.

In 1966, Bergemann began studying photography under Arno Fischer, who she would later marry. As a member of the Association of Visual Artists of the German Democratic Republic (VBK), she took on a commission to photographically document the creation of the Marx-Engel Forum in Berlin Mitte from 1975-1986.

For 28 years, Bergemann and Fischer lived in an apartment close to Berlin's Friedrichstrasse train station, which became a much-loved meeting point for GDR and internationally renowned photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton and Robert Frank.

As a fashion, reportage, landscape and portrait photographer, Bergemann is perhaps best-known for her photographic essays observing contemporary life. This photograph, "Susi, Rathenow" (1976), is typical of her enigmatic and haunting style of portraiture.

"I'm interested in the edge of the world, not the middle. That which is irreplaceable matters to me - when something isn't quite right in faces or landscapes," Bergemann once said in an interview.

An internationally acclaimed photographer, Bergemann's work has been published in newspapers and magazines including Der Spiegel, The New York Times, GEO and Die Zeit. Bergemann died after a long battle with cancer on November 1, 2010.

Florian Merkel, Man with Frog (1987)
Florian Merkel, Man with Frog (1987)Image: Florian Merkel

Pop goes digital

Florian Merkel was born in Chemnitz - then called Karl-Marx-Stadt - in 1961 and studied photography in Leipzig. He moved to Berlin in 1989 and was a member of the EIDOS artist group between 1990 and 1999. His work is influence by American Pop Art and the state art of Social-Realism.

Merkel's "Man with Frog" is a hand-colored black-and-white photograph from a series of self-portraits taken by the artist in 1987 and reflects his interest in Pop Art and use of bold blocks of flat color. Merkel has since turned to digital technology.

"The offensive breaking through boundaries between the media, the combination of objective technical recording, directing, digital smoothing and the manual production of images is my means of choice to turn analysis around and define the media in their social environment by their antitheses, thus finding, in the process, the freedom of commentary and personal expression," Merkel said.

Merkel has exhibited internationally and has lived and worked in Hanover and Berlin since 2001.

Evelyn Richter, On the Cutter (1966)
Evelyn Richter, On the Cutter (1966)Image: Evelyn Richter

Social documentary

German photographer Evelyn Richter was born in Bautzen in 1930. After studying in Dresden and later in Leipzig, Richter went on to teach photography in Leipzig and Bielefeld.

Richter is one of the most important social-documentary photographers of her generation to have emerged from the German Democratic Republic. Over the decades, she has continually worked in series, documenting the changing social and cultural landscape of the GDR, where she first exhibited her work in the late 1970s.

Richter's photograph "On the Cutter" (1966) was taken in a factory in Dessau and depicts the far-from-glamorous, rather monotonous everyday life of a young woman in the communist Republic. "Realistic photography was frowned upon, insofar as it showed the reality of life. That was absurd. The world was sugar-coated, it was supposed to look like one had theoretically planned and wanted. That was actually our only experiment back then, to show the world just how it is and how one experienced it," Richter recently said of her work.

In 1992, she was awarded the Culture Prize of the German Photography Society and, in 2006, won the Art Prize of the State Capital of Dresden. The Evelyn Richter Archive, comprising of over 730 photographs from her oeuvre, has been housed at the Museum of Visual Arts in Leipzig since 2009.

"The Shuttered Society: Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989" runs through January 28, 2013 at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin.