New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 39 November 28 to December 4, 2012

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Art Photography in the GDR

The Shuttered Society 1949- 1989
Adela Yawitz
Im Kino/Teil II by Matthias Leupold.
Matthias Leupold, "Im Kino/Teil II" 1983

The European Month of Photography’s theme this year is “The View of the Other”; technically a definition wide enough to include almost any photograph, except maybe self-portraits. The Berlinische Gallerie’s contribution is Geschlossene Gesellschaft/The Shuttered Society: Art Photography in the GDR 1949-1989. Despite its subtitle, the exhibition’s introductory text warns not to take everything you see as “art” – in fact photographers working before the 1980s worked in a documentary mode, and only later developed an awareness of themselves as artists.

Separating the artistic from the documentary is a strange distinction to be made in a museum. The charm of these images lies in their combination of the two modes, their glance at a different time with its outdated clothing and ideology. Christian Borchert’s taxonomy of East German families, standing in their kitchens or living rooms wearing sweater vests and bug-eyed glasses, adds up to much more than documentation. It becomes a real view of the “other”, separated only by time; technically people in the photos could also be the viewers.

Ein Tag in Ostberlin by Kurt Buchwalk.
Kurt Buchwalk, "Ein Tag in Ostberlin" 1986

Conceptual photography documenting a performative action is represented by Kurt Buchwald’s Ein Tag in Ostberlin. At the other extreme is a group of 1970s photographers who were trying to revive pre World War II German avant-garde formalism. The room devoted to their work is the only place in the exhibition that really feels out of date. Ironically, the people trying hardest to make art were irrelevant; those who were recording their environment, with a thoughtful gaze, turned out to be leaving a lasting message.


The Shuttered Society 1949- 1989



The Berlinische Gallerie

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