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Review of Do Not Refreeze exhibition of East German photography

Do Not Refreeze is an exhibition of photographs by East German photographers from the 1950s to the 1980s. It's a big exhibition, laid out on three floors with a huge variety of images. It takes you on a journey through the changing cityscapes of the GDR, and the people who inhabited that mostly grey and decrepit country. Despite the restrictions, life behind the Berlin Wall could be surprisingly rich, though not in a material sense. That's the message we get from this remarkable and fascinating exhibition.

The first level of the exhibition takes us into the GDR during the 1950s. The first and only socialist state on German soil was founded in 1949, but it continued to be referred to by many as 'the Zone', short for Soviet Zone of Occupation, for many years after.

In the first photos by Arno Fischer (28 years old in 1955) we see people standing in bombed out buildings with pockmarked facades, a familiar theme of photography in Europe in the years just after the war. But in East Germany the ruins survived into the 1950s and beyond, often standing side by side with new construction.

Strausberger Platz 1959 Arno Fischer
Strausberger Platz 1959 Arno Fischer

In another image by Arno Fischer, a Tatra car, preferred transport of the communist elite of that time, is pictured on an empty Strausberger Platz, just off Karl-Marx-Allee in East Berlin. It's surrounded by recently built Soviet-style residential blocks.

Cars are a recurring theme and mark the passage of time.

Like other photographers in the exhibition Arno Fischer focuses on individuals within crowd scenes. Their expressions give a clue as to what people really about their situation, especially in the two photographs at the funeral of Wilhelm Pieck in 1960.

Funeral of Wilhelm Pieck 1960 photo by Arno Fischer
Funeral of Wilhelm Pieck 1960 photo by Arno Fischer

In the GDR, all arts were subject to rigid guidelines. Socialist Realism was the only permitted style. Workers and peasants were to be depicted heroically defending and supporting the communist state and its authoritarian leaders.

Photography was however regarded as an applied art and not as prestigious as painting or sculpture. For this reason, photographers were able to achieve a much greater degree of realism and creative independence than their colleagues working in other media.

All of the photographers featured in this exhibition attended the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig. It was the only place in the GDR where it was possible to study photography and it continues to be an important institution today. One of the photographers featured in the exhibition, Erasmus Schröter, teaches photography there.

Arno Fischer's striking portrait of John Heartfield, whose subversive pro-communist posters and paintings created a stir in the Weimar Republic three decades earlier, is another gem of the exhibition. Heartfield settled in the GDR after the war, but looking at his face we can only speculate on what he thought of his adopted country.

Arno Fischer photographed Marlene Dietrich in Leningrad 1964 as well as workers in Ecuatorial Guinea, who are given the stark monochrome 'GDR' treatment.

The GDR at the time had interests and projects in various parts of the world. Photographers had to be in favour with the authorities in order to be allowed to travel to 'non-Socialist' parts of the world.

Sibylle Bergemann's views of East Berlin, the Soviet Union and a wintry Sellin on the Balitic are haunting. Startlingly she also has a photograph from Hollywood - it's a half derelict looking house, perhaps part of a film lot.

Another recurring theme in this exhibition is the enigmatic quality of many of the photos, which raise more questions than they answer. There is no description or background information with any of the images, just a title. The intention is for people to look and form their own impressions. Background information is available in the book to accompany the exhibition (see cover image upper left).

The photography of East Germany is mostly unknown in the UK, but if we can speak of an archetypal image, it's of decrepit half derelict buildings and empty streets with lone figures and parked Trabants. This may have been the sad reality that people had to live through for 40 years but it makes an ideal photographic subject for black and white photography.

Some of Sibylle Bergemann's photos fulfil this archetype and they are superbly crafted and fascinating to look at.

Berlin Palace of the Republic 1978 Photo by Sibylle Bergemann
Berlin Palace of the Republic 1978 Photo by Sibylle Bergemann

In her 'Berlin Palace of the Republic' we return to the theme of faces within a crowd. Looking at the ceiling lamps in the upper part of the picture we can see why people called it 'Erichs Lampenladen' or 'Erich's lamp shop'.

Under the lamps we see the backs of people looking down over a balcony. Our eyes are drawn to the child in the lower right. What is that child doing now?

I went into that building many times on my visits to East Berlin, and in the restaurants there, ate delicious and very cheap meals often with Soviet-influenced names.

That's also a question we ask of the signature image of a pale faced blond-haired 10 year old girl. The picture is entitled 'Kirsten Hoppenrade' and also appears on the cover of the catalogue (upper left).

To me it doesn't really sum up the content of the exhibition, but it is a haunting image that should capture the attention of a wide audience and draw them in.

Some images from the Communist East can defy expectations. This is the case of the fashion-style images of women by the river in east Berlin taken in the 80s. This could almost be Paris.

These images taken by Sibylle Bergemann appeared in the GDR fashion magazine, also co-incidentally named Sibylle.

The exhibition contains much that is unexpected and perhaps the most surprising thing of all is that these images by virtually unknown photographers are of a standard equal to the best photographers of the 20th century. Forgotten and ignored for decades, they can now be seen in this exhibition.

We continue on Level 2 with images by Evelyn Richter (30 years old in 1960)

Her photos carve out a sharp and grainy monochrome vision of her homeland. Her technical and creative powers are evident from the first glance.

At Plänterwald Station, East Berlin we can just see the blocks of flats through the open doors of one of the 1930s style suburban railway trains that were a signature of Berlin until quite recently. Another image of hers taken at Plänterwald Station shows just the blocks of flats which have a monolithic quality.

Magdeburg 1968 Photo by Evelyn Richter
Magdeburg 1968 Photo by Evelyn Richter

The same is true of her startling image of tenement blocks in Magdeburg seen over empty ground and tramlines. These are familiar images of the east: grim, grainy and haunting.

But by contrast, the photo of the River Spree in East Berlin by Museum Island has a Parisian quality, softened by the mist. An element of irony is provided by the passing barge whose title is 'Traumland' or Dreamland. What were the East Berliners dreaming of? Paris maybe?

In many of Evelyn Richter's photos there is a picture within a picture, giving an extra dimension of meaning to the image.

Ursula Arnold (born 1929) presents us with candid images of people within the streetscape of 1950s Leipzig. There is an old woman bent over and shadowy staircase, a couple just married and celebrating within a cobbled street overlooked by crumbling tenement facades. Children are pictured playing on a similar street, and here I'm reminded of the street photos of Shirley Baker taken in Salford during the 1960s.

The street scenes are a stark reminder of how the East was and now mostly no longer looks today.

Cars and other forms of transport are a focal point and give some clues as to when the photos were taken, though many vehicles were kept running for years so dating a picture can be difficult. The clapped out three wheeled vehicle in Rykestrasse looks like something from another age. There are decrepit trams, vans, and other vehicles it's now very difficult to put a name to. We are looking at a lost world, which thank goodness, these photographers have captured for posterity.

In more of Ursula Arnold's photos we return to the theme of faces within a crowd, especially those of children. The little boy with the balloon, May 1965 stands out.

A prominent feature of Ostalgie or nostalgia for the GDR is the memory of brand names a few of which are visible in some of the photos.

Helga Paris (born 1938) continues the familar theme of East Germans portrayed in their environment. Despite the decrepitutde of the surroundings, the individuality and humanity of the people shines through.

As a photographer of street scenes myself, I am irresistably drawn to the images of the empty, ghostly streets of the east, particularly the unnamed street in Halle, devoid of anything apart from three figures and a parked Trabant.

Halle 1984 Photo by Helga Paris
Halle 1984 Photo by Helga Paris

In one photo by Helga Paris we have what looks like a sports car from the 1950s, next to a Wartburg and a Trabant. In matters automotive, variety wasn't the spice of life in East Germany

Further street scenes provide a precious document of Halle as it once looked. In fact most of East Germany and the communist east looked like this. And I can also remember the ever present smell of two-stroke mix from the 3 cylinder engines.

It is still shocking to see beautiful original half-timbered houses abandoned and practically falling down. How many of them are still there today?

A shop window is almost empty, like the street it looks onto, which is reflected in the glass. Such was the reality of life in East Germany.

Halle buildings in snow 1984 Photo by Helga Paris
Halle buildings in snow 1984 Photo by Helga Paris

In one wintry image, the snow seems to mask the decay, until you look more closely and see that between the snow-covered roof timbers there is nothing at all, as the roof has fallen in.

If there is beauty in dereliction and decay, then the GDR was the most beautiful country in the world!

I'm reminded here of the paintings and drawings of Trevor Grimshaw, who found a stark beauty in the townscapes of northern England.

We have now reached the top floor of the Cornerhouse gallery, and Erasmus Schröter's large format images of street scenes continue the theme of derelict but atmospheric cityscapes, with more of those ubiquitous Trabants and Wartburgs.

Dresden 1985 Photo by Erasmus Schröter
Dresden 1985 Photo by Erasmus Schröter

It's a vision that's often empty of people but it starts to take on a grim fascination the more you stare at it. The photo of Dresden tramlines over cobblestones with a blank wall and peeling paintwork speaks volumes about the economic state of the GDR in its fourth decade of existence. Even if colour film had been used, it wouldn't have picked out very much, apart from the peeling day-glow orange paint I remember seeing on roadside railings in the East.

These large size photos are of superb quality and are original GDR prints. I wonder how these street scenes look today. And it's impossible to appreciate the quality and detail unless you come to the exhibition. A web page image cannot do justice to the original

Erasmus Schröter's infra-red night scenes provide a totally unexpected view of the East and caused a sensation when they were first exhibited in the West. He used an infra-red flash, which is invisible to the human eye. The subjects - including the llama being led into a ballroom - didn't know they were being photographed. The effect is surreal and humorous.

Llama being led into a ballroom Leipzig 1981 Photo by Erasmus Schröter
Llama Leipzig 1981 by Erasmus Schröter

In the photos of Maria Sewcz (25 years old in 1985) we get a different focus, directed towards details of the now familiar East Berlin streetscape. Cars feature again prominently and signal the progression of time. We are in the eighties, final decade of the GDR, though almost no one foresaw it at the time.

Her photo of parked Volvo cars and drivers may present a puzzle to the uninitiated. As a regular visitor to East Berlin I recognise the location: It's behind the Palace of the Republic, the 'Erich's lamp shop' building we saw earlier, which also housed the GDR's rubber-stamp parliament, the Volkskammer. The cars - all Volvos - are the official transport of the Communist elite. By this time they had given up on the Tatras and Zils of earlier decades.

Photo by Maria Sewcz
East Berlin 1984 Photo by Maria Sewcz

Maria told me she took this photo surruptitiously with an Olympus compact camera loaded with East German ORWO film. She ran quite a risk in capturing this photo. She had applied to be an official photographer at the event, but had been turned down. As a kind of revenge, she took this photo which was to be 'her' record of the of the event from which she had been excluded.

Another of her photos is of a plane seen above a building facade. Again, local knowledge allows me to read a meaning into this photo which others might not be aware of. East Berliners saw British and French airliners banking over East Berlin on their final approach to Tegel Airport in the West. The planes were a constant reminder of the world beyond the Berlin Wall and all the exotic travel destinaitons which people in the east could only dream of. But not for long.

A sequence from the GDR film Solo Sunny, made in 1980, features a longing glance at a British BAC 1-11 flying over East Berlin.

Maria insists that her photos should not be described in any way, not even with a title. Originally this was a way of beating the censor, but this principle is still adhered to.

More Wartburgs, trams and Trabants, shot from the hip in an East Berlin that was about to experience its biggest upheaval in decades, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A sign of the times is a West German tv crew photographed on a street in East Berlin in mid-1989, which Maria took spontaneously from the hip as she was passing.

The series by Ulrich Wüst depicting statues departs from the main theme, though there are some inescapable icons of Communism, such the face of Karl Marx.

In the end room, the series by Gundula Schulze-Eldowy (31 in 1985) entitled 'Berlin on a Dog's Night' begins with an unexpectedly frivolous self-portrait of the photographer with an unknown man who has his head under her jumper.

Her landscapes of East Germany and Poland are filled with a chilly beauty. I loved the dusk view of the train at a station with a misty backdrop, but where is this?

Her series of photos of an old lady in stages of decline is shocking, partly because of the subject matter, and partly because we wonder how on earth any photographer could get away with producing images like this in the GDR. Some might see the old lady a symbol of the decline of the East German state but that might be going a bit too far with the symbolism.

Her portraits of East Germans clothed and unclothed continues a theme of unflinching and unflattering realism, but as before the individuality and dignity of the sitters comes through.

Her series of street photographs seems at first sight to satisfy the dictates of Socialist Realism, but on closer inspection it is subverted by the eccentricity of the people, some of whom appear to be on the edge of madness and have a surreal 'Diane Arbus' quality. It's a good example of how the photographers were able to be subversive, while the authorities were not perceptive enough - or maybe not intelligent enough - to notice.

Hoffman, Kulikowski and Mielke 1984 Photo by Gundula Schulze Eldowy
Hoffman, Kulikowski and Mielke 1984 Photo by Gundula Schulze Eldowy

One very striking image sums up the East German regime very well. It's the photo of Hoffman, Kulikowski and Mielke at the May 1st parade 1984. Mielke was the head of the Stasi from 1957 until 1989. They are indulging in some Soviet-GDR pleasantries on the podium at the foot of which, a stern and comical plain clothes security man peers suspiciously to one side, lips pursed. This seems to sum up the GDR as a state of party functionaries and military big wigs in big Soviet-style hats supported and protected by an army of zealous and petty-minded Stasi agents. This might perhaps have been my choice as signature image for the exhibition, but I doubt if it would have the pulling power of 'Kirsten Hopperade'.

The date above the podium is May 1984. Five and a half years later the entire structure of Communist control in East Germany would have collapsed, and soon the big Soviet hats would be on sale as souvenirs in front of the re-opened Brandenburg gate. Few realised how close the end was, least of all Erich Honecker, who predicted the Wall would still be there in '50 and even 100 years'. I also had no idea of what was round the corner.

Do Not Refreeze takes us on a journey through a lost world, which then as now, has been seriously neglected and overlooked both here in the UK and in West Germany.

The photographs touch on a very wide range of themes and use many different techniques and formats, though colour photography isn't one of them, and I think the exhibition is all the better for this. East Germany was often described as 'grau in grau' or 'grey in grey' and so black and white is the ideal medium in which to depict it. In any case, colour film was for most photographers in the East prohibitively expensive.

Anyone who appreciates photography - particularly black and white photography - will enjoy these pictures as they are of a truly world-class quality.

And anyone with any knowledge of the eastern part of Germany whether before the Wall came down or in more recent times should find these images irrisistably fascinating, and of great historical value.

The exhibition was curated by Matthew Shaul, Head of Programming at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries. He told me the idea for the exhibition came to him after seeing some of the work of East German photographers at an exhibition at the Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin in 2003. Though he found the sculptures and paintings mostly little more than historical curios, he was bowled over by the quality and universal appeal of the photography and resolved to bring an exhibition of these photographs the UK.

After four years and a huge amount of work, 'Do Not Refreeze' is the result, and it is fantastic.

Only someone with first hand experience of Germany could have pulled this exhibition together. With his excellent knowledge of the language, and professional awareness of the artistic and cultural scene in both countries, Matthew provides the essential link between the UK and Germany. A German curator would probably have found it difficult to find their way around the British art scene. And no British curator would have been aware of the depth and quality of the East German photographers without being introduced to it in Germany, as Matthew Shaul was.

He is very pleased that the exhibition was taken up so enthusiastically by Manchester's Cornerhouse, which he regards as the pre-eminent exhibition space in the North West.

If I was still teaching German I would have instructed every student of mine to go to the Cornerhouse and see it.

Do Not Refreeze Exhibition Catalogue available from Cornerhouse Publications
Click image to buy Do Not Refreeze Exhibition Catalogue from the Cornerhouse website

This is a five star exhibition of world-class photography and I recommend everyone to go and see it.

After Cornerhouse Manchester, the show is moving to the University of Hertforshire's gallery in Hatfield, then Focal Point Southampton and finally the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and Museum.

Admission is free so you there is no excuse whatsoever for not attending! Learn about photography, learn about an important and forgotten world that is part of the history of Europe, go and see 'Do Not Refreeze Photography Behind the Berlin Wall' while you can!

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-04-26

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