these 5 photographers captured east germany's rebellious youth
See how artists documented the decade before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Christiane Eisler, Mita and Jana, Berlin punk girls in Leipzig, 1983. Courtesy of the artist
Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Restless Bodies: East German Photography, 1980—1989 revisits the work of the photographers who defied East Germany's authoritarian state to make art. The group exhibition, which ends this week at the Rencontres d’Arles in the South of France, showcases the work of 16 photographers, who created impactful images despite the constraints and dangers imposed by the German Democratic Republic.
"The generation that had grown up behind the Wall hadn’t witnessed the founding of the GDR,” said the exhibit's curator Sonia Voss. “They had no faith in the ideological principles that underlay the society they lived in and thus felt a strong urge to push the boundaries of their means of expression.”
Pushing the boundaries not only stretched to creative choices, but also powered a real existential itch: “the position of this new generation towards their reality was shaped by impatience and even rage,” Voss said. East German media was under constant scrutiny and subject to censorship to better reflect the government's ideology. Failure to conform to party standards, which were anchored around the negation of the individual and the propagation of normativity, would result in arrest.
“The GDR regime was obsessively searching to idealize the life of the people and largely used photography for purposes of propaganda. In that context, it was already an act of defiance to document life ‘as it really was,'” Voss noted.
Photography that undercut the norm confined their creativity to the private sphere, rousing a quietly subversive counterculture. German cities were drab and menacing, and the threat of surveillance was constant, so photographers reinvested in themselves, using “the body as a way to affirm one's individuality,” Voss said. Moreover, this was a means of flipping off a society obsessed with the concept of the collective. Isolation fueled aesthetic experimentation and the need to reclaim subjectivity. “The more a regime or a system represses people,” Voss said, “the more some members of that society will develop strategies to express their individuality and singularity—by inventing alternative modes of life or searching inside themselves and exploring their inner fields of tension.”
Many photographers studied at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, the only art academy that taught photography as an art metier. “Photography hadn’t been officially considered as an art in the GDR until the late 1970s so there was nothing obvious about seeing photography as a mean of self-expression,” Voss said.
Below we highlight five of the most compelling photographers of the time:
In the late 60s and early 70s, Sibylle Bergemann created fashion photography series for publications like Sonntag, Das Magazin, and Sibylle. The latter, founded in 1956 and named after the first editor-in-chief Sibylle Gerstner, was deemed the Vogue of East Germany. It covered fashion without selling any brands whatsoever—given the anti-consumerism diktats—although sewing patterns for the designs featured were included in the magazine. (The publication was recently celebrated for its iconic cultural role in an exhibition at the Willy Brandt Haus in Berlin this past summer, focusing on influential photographers who shaped the magazine, including Sibylle Bergemann and Ute Mahler.) Bergemann catalogued this ad hoc creativity: textured jackets that seemed made of scales, layered and voluminous cabbage-esque skirts, oversized leather jackets, spiked ‘dos hazardous-looking enough to discourage proximity. In the 1980s, Bergemann chronicled Berlin’s underground collective ccd (chic, charmant & dauerhaft), which fashioned garments from rehabilitated knits and shower curtains—Bergemann’s daughter, Frieda von Wild, partook in this group. Later, Bergemann co-founded photography agency Ostkreuz with Ute Mahler, taught photography, and became a member the Berlin Academy of Arts.
Ute Mahler studied photography at Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig (1969-1974). Like Bergemann, she began getting fashion photography commissions from Sibylle. A regular contributor who blurred the lines between fashion, portrait, and documentary styles, she eventually co-authored a compendium about the magazine (“Sibylle: Zeitschrift für Mode und Kultur”). Mahler’s long-term solo project “Living Together” (“Zusammenleben”) documented day-to-day life in the GDR. The naturalism of her portraits show people seemingly too preoccupied to notice her presence, be it a young woman with her cigarette pointed skyward, her gaze askance, or friends sprawled amongst tall scruffy grasses in odd almost ritualistic poses. Those who look directly into the camera seem to bore into the lens, unamused and beset by indeterminate anxieties. “I wanted to see what was hidden behind the official facade of optimism,” stated Ute Mahler in 2014. “What does body language express even when someone's facial expression conveys the contrary?”
Eisler too studied photography at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig (1978-1983) and pursued a documentary approach, notably a series about the Jugendwerkhof correctional center for adolescents in the GDR. She photographed her friends frolicking through the blown-out city as if it were a post-apocalyptic playground. Her work on punks in Leipzig and Berlin—she described them as her “protagonists”—was a source of both creative thrills and real danger. Punk communities had disparate constellations spread in various parts of East Germany, often connected to the music scene. Punks were systematically harassed and repressed by the Stasi (the State Security Service), and the communities shrunk as figures tried to leave the East. Eisler was proud of mixing with these “unpredictable, raging young people who challenged the regime and let me hang out with them,” she wrote in 2017. But her photographs also made her a target of suspicion and political intimidation. She and her friends would be searched while on the way to a concert or a party, and psychologically or physically threatened by authorities. Her final graduation project, which she submitted to the school, was locked away by the Stasi as though “toxic.” In 2016, the very same series on punks that had been censored by GDR authorities was published in book form and exhibited at the Stasi archives in Leipzig.
Barbara Metselaar Berthold
Metselaar Berthold studied psychology, and then switched to photography at—where else!—Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig (1971-1976). She started working as a press photographer but pivoted to working for theaters, cinema studios, and artists. Her personal work honed in on her generation’s political disillusion. She circulated between dilapidated bars until the authorities would shut them down “for renovations”—a means of blocking the marginal circles who gathered at such places. Compulsive weekend partying was used as a balm to allay the stagnancy. Metselaar Berthold snapped these grungy fêtes, people with half-undressed bodies and faces shiny with manic energy, always situated within her unexpected framing choices. The culture was marked by “sarcasm in lieu of change,” as she put it, due to the overpowering sense of ennui, resignation, and powerlessness. “The desire to flee hung over everything,” she admitted. “Exuberance didn't always suffice.”
Gundula Schulze Eldowy
Yet another alum of the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig (1979-1984), Schulze Eldowy did a series of nudes for her final student project. Nudity doubled as a form of confrontation and affirmation rather than anything resembling coy seduction. Using friends and acquaintances as subjects, all offer undaunted postures and unflinching gazes. Her 1984 image “Rajk und Matthias, Berlin,” featuring two men covered in tattoos and literally nothing else, looks as contemporary as if they were plucked out of a seedy apartment in Bushwick. Schulze Eldowy would leave her place near Alexanderplatz and circulate with her Nikon FE, snaking through the fringe Berlin neighborhoods Scheunenviertel and Mitte to immerse herself amongst its subcultures. She photographed people kissing against crumbling walls and reaching for each other within grayed, decomposing environs. “I infiltrated the bowels,” she wrote in 2011. “Berlin looked like a vanished city, it resembled an archaeological site.” She added: “The official version of the past was something abstract for me. My experiences in the streets of Berlin were living history.”
In addition to the exhibition, the photographers are presented in The Freedom Within Us (Koenig Books, English edition, 2019) and Les Libertés intérieures, (Xavier Barral, French edition, 2019).