Monday, February 04, 2008

Photography in the DDR

(Gundula Schulze Eldowy)

In an interesting bit of coincidence today I came across two sets of photographs about different aspects of life in the old DDR - the former East Germany. One set is from an exhibition "Do Not Refreeze" about the personal (and political) work of East German Photographers during the Cold War.

(Thomas Meyer, Inside Stasi - Stasi office with portrait of Erich Mielke)

The other is from a set of contemporary photographs about the institution that was the Stasi - the East German Secret Police - Inside Stasi by photographer Thomas Meyer.

I read a review of the first exhibition, "Do Not Refreeze", in the Guardian - unfortunately there are very few of the images online, but it certainly sounds interesting:

(Sybille Bergemann)

...Painting and sculpture, literature, poetry and theatre were very closely observed by the Stasi," says Gundula Schulze Eldowy, an artist and photographer who was based in east Berlin in the 70s and 80s. "Photography less so, and that was simply because they didn't perceive it as an art form." Photography, in other words, could get away with a critique of the repressive communist system that was largely denied to the other art forms.

(Erasmus Schroeter)

...Shaul argues that the authorities in East Germany failed to understand what was being expressed in many of the photographs. "Often the photographers were careful not to add a title beyond a place and date, because socialist ideology was very hung up on definitions. In effect, what they did was generate a visual language which was unreadable to the organs of state power but readable to the general public."

(Evelyn Richter)

Thus Richter's beautifully composed Receptionist in Town Hall 1975 contains a coded message about a woman imprisoned by the state. "What Richter was trying to do with this and many of her other pictures," says Shaul, "was to communicate between the lines. She was trying to emphasise the way in which people in the GDR were enclosed and expected to give reverence to the communist party.

(Evelyn Richter)

Behind that woman is a picture of Erich Honecker [East Germany's head of state in the 1970s and 80s], displayed as you would display a religious icon. Another photograph, Entrance to a Convalescent Home 1986, shows a picture of Lenin preaching to revolutionaries. The idea is to use a picture within a picture to present an ideology that had once been dynamic as something that, by the mid-80s, had become tatty and careworn."

(Evelyn Richter)

...After the wall came down in 1989 some of these photographers never again recaptured the spark of their pre-liberation work. "Some have made successful careers in the reunited Germany," says Shaul, "but others have been bereft and their work is a pale shadow of what they did under communism. They needed to push against the wall of state censorship, which defined and nurtured their work; they needed to find chinks in the communist armour, niches in which to express themselves". More here.

(Thomas Meyer, Inside Stasi - Stasi bunker near Leipzig)

The Stasi - the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit or Ministry for State Security, were initially modelled on the KGB and were known for their all encompassing surveillance of the East German population, from phone taps to bugs to neighbours, co-workers, friends and family acting as informers. After the Berlin Wall came hundreds of thousands of hours of sound surveillance tape were found. There were files and index cards on just about every person in the country. By the end of the Cold War, the Stasi had about 90,000 staff and 1 in 50 of East Germany's citizens was also working for the Stasi and the their archives show just who was informing on who, and how often trusted friends and even loved ones were in fact working for the Stasi - in some ways, leading to a state of national paranoia.

Thomas Meyer's photographs are a good cold eyed look at the remaining empty shell of this fear inducing institution.

(Thomas Meyer, Inside Stasi - File card archive)

Do Not Refreeze is at the Focal Point Gallery, Southend, until March 8, and at the Wolverhampton Art Gallery from May 10 until June 28.

(Thomas Meyer, Inside Stasi - Interrogation room)

Of course, there is also a book of the show Do Not Refreeze

(Thomas Meyer, Inside Stasi - Photographic room)


Stan B. said...

Pity there's no Inside Stasi book!

White Russian said...

wow the first photo is powerful. i was seriously taken back when i first saw it.


Roy said...

I had made a note to myself to catch this show when it was on show near me - missed it though. Still, Southend is close so I will definitely go there to see it.
When I first read about the work and saw some images I knew it was a 'must see'. Your review has made me even more sure of that, thanks.