German Store Brings Forgotten Pictures Back to Life | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 26.10.2006
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German Store Brings Forgotten Pictures Back to Life

Private photographs tend to lose their value once they've been discarded by their owners. The owner of one German store is trying to change that by rescuing pictures from oblivion.

Anke Heelemann with some of the pictures that have already found new homes

Anke Heelemann with some of the pictures that have already found new homes

Off the beaten path of Goethe and Schiller in Weimar, Anke Heelemann pretends to sell photographs. In the display window of her store, the Fotothek, a black and white picture of a little girl wearing what appeared to be a potholder recently featured as photo of the week on a little green table.

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Checking out slides at the Fotothek

Inside, thousands of photos lie in carboard boxes and file cabinets that line the wall. In one corner, slides cover an illuminated square that's surrounded by red pillows for people to sit on. On shelves, more photos, flipped over so that people can read the inscriptions on the back, are on display.

It might not be a tactic conducive to increasing sales, but that's not what Heelemann is after: The media design student at Weimar's Bauhaus University created the "specialty store for forgotten private photographs" for her diploma.

"The basic idea was to create this public space where you can encounter these pictures," she said. "Somehow this store seemed to be the only way to deal with this topic."

Discarded memories

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Most of the photographs come from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s

The topic she's talking about is old family photographs that have been discarded or left behind by their owners and end up on actual and virtual flea markets.

"I've come across them again and again," Heelemann said, adding that she was fascinated by these photographic family histories that had lost their "worth" as bundles in shoe boxes and were waiting for buyers.

"I always felt that there's something left in these pictures," she said, adding that she's since bought up about 25,000 photographs at a few euros (dollars) per box.

Obscure collections

She's come across obscure collections this way.

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Pictures in the file cabinets on the right have been ordered according to themes

"There's one box with 600 pictures of a couple in various poses, including salacious ones, and all of them were taken inside an apartment," she said, adding that it made her wonder whether the couple had an affair.

At the Fotothek, where many pictures are still waiting in -- albeit more presentable -- boxes for attention, Heelemann's begun categorizing photos and filing them according to themes. "Beach," "animals," and "birthday" are among the more obvious ones while others are called "Handbags" or "linked arms."


Store visitors are welcome to look through the files. While pictures are not for sale, people can "adopt" them for a donation. After the photos have been displayed in an "adoption album" for a while, Heelemann will send them to their godparents, who are obliged to send her a photo of the adopted picture in its new surroundings.

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Boxes full with memories

Some 100 people have already signed up. "Adoptees" include a picture of a silhouette of a nude woman made out of wire hanging on the wall next to a rubber plant, considered a petty-bourgeois icon in Germany. Another one depicts a group of people and has been dedicated by the adopter to one man, whose head has been cut off in the photograph. There's a picture of an East German Trabant car chosen by a visitor as a present to his father, who used to drive one just like it.

"One young couple came in and picked a picture of grandparents because they said they didn't have one of their own," Heelemann said, adding that some seem to see the photos as an ersatz memory.

Providing a service

"She's providing a service that no one is aware they needed," said Christine Hill, an artist based in Berlin and New York, who advised Heelemann as a guest professor in Weimar. "People walk into the store wide-eyed, they find it curious. That moment of both shifting everyone's perspective and communicating with people that aren't necessarily her people is an art event."

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Searching for potential pictures to adopt

While Heelemann said that she doesn't want people to think of her store as a cemetery for pictures they are simply trying to get rid off and is not asking for donations of photographs, she hopes to continue and expand the project next year.

Until then, she'll also continue to file away a few gems into her own private box.

"There are a few special ones that I've grown fond of," she said, adding that she particularly likes a photo depicting the No. 6 tram in Dresden. On the back, it reads: Farewell Place -- the No. 6 abducted my love.

"It's a wonderful picture that triggers stories," she said.

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