The leading East German compact system cameras Praktica and Pentacon were manufactured by a state-owned enterprise in Dresden’s Niedersedlitz district, cementing the Saxonian city’s reputation as a cradle of innovation in East German photography and camera technology.
Many photographers have used these cameras to record life in the former GDR before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Some of these images are now on display as part of an exhibition at the Schloss Biesdorf Arts Centre in Marzahn-Hellersdorf. Read on to find out more about four of the most prominent among the 22 photographers featured in the exhibition, which is titled ‘Blick Verschiebung’ (‘Shift in Perspective’) and runs until 8 April 2018.
1. Siegfried Wittenburg: Documenting Everyday Life in the GDR
Professional photographers used their cameras to capture a wide variety of subjects. From the vantage point of today, images of buildings and everyday street scenes offer fascinating insights into ordinary life in East Germany. Siegfried Wittenburg is a great example of a photographer who successfully walked the line between documentation and deviation from the kind of imagery sanctioned by the socialist government.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo – Unsplash
Working in an environment where a photograph of the construction of a new housing development in the Plattenbau style of pre-fab concrete slabs could be read either as documentary evidence or as an act of social criticism, Wittenburg saw capturing everyday life in the GDR as both a challenge and a mission. His exhibition ‘Grüße aus der DDR oder Der Alltag in einem verschwundenen Staat’ (‘Greetings from the GDR or Everyday Life in a Vanished State’) is a record of that challenge. Born in Rostock, Wittenburg worked primarily in the northern part of the GDR.
2. Arno Fischer: Images of the East German Capital
For anybody interested in what everyday life was like in East Berlin, the work of Wittenburg’s colleague Arno Fischer makes a good starting point. Born in the district of Wedding in 1927, Fischer moved to the East in 1953. Commissioned to document the rebuilding of the bombed city as a socialist capital, he also worked for Vogue’s Eastern competitor Sibylle. His photobooks showing life in East German cities have a distinct political subtext that makes them relevant far beyond the period of their creation. From 1972 to 1974, Fischer was a guest lecturer at the Leipzig Academy of Fine Arts, where he later held a professorship for photographic arts from 1985 to 1993.
Photo by Luca Bravo – Unsplash
3. Ulrich Wüst: Before and After the Fall
Born in Magdeburg in 1949, Ulrich Wüst studied architecture and construction in Weimar before moving to East Berlin in 1972. His portfolio includes impressive images of the new Plattenbau developments as well as of Berlin after the fall of the Wall. His pre-1989 photographs show a country that has come to a dead end, so it comes as no surprise to learn that 1989 was one of the most artistically productive years of his career. His images have been shown at Documenta 14 and C/O Galerie.
Photo by Suvan Chowdhury – Pexels
4. Helga Paris: Failed Housing Policy in Black-and-White
Helga Paris’s artistic focus was on portrait photography. Her images, whether of 1980s punks or apron-clad housewives, insist on the uniqueness of the individual in the face of egalitarian attempts to erase all differences between people. Paris was self-taught, having studied fashion design in Berlin in the 1950s before working as a freelance photographer. One of the highlights of her contribution is a series of images commissioned for an exhibition in 1986, which was eventually cancelled because her photographs unequivocally show the urban dereliction and failed housing policy in the city of Halle.
Photo by Sam Walker – Pexels
Did you know? The Aachen-based fashion editor, designer and entrepreneur Gabriele Koenig owns what is probably the largest private collection of GDR photography anywhere in the world. Following her accidental discovery of an arresting image by the East German photographer Thomas Steinert in 2004, Koenig bought over 200 photographs ranging from architectural to erotic images, from snapshots of workers having lunch at a state-owned cafeteria to pictures taken inside the Stasi prison in Hohenschönhausen.