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Review of Do Not Refreeze E German photography conference Saturday 1 Dec 2007

On Saturday 1 December I attended a conference to tie in with the Do Not Refreeze exhibition of East German photography, which premiered in Manchester and later moved to the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield. That's where curator Matthew Shaul is based, and was the venue for the conference, one of the most interesting I've been to in a long time.

Do Not Refreeze is an exhibition of East German photography which premiered at the Cornerhouse Manchester in mid-2007.

See my review of Do Not Refreeze exhibition of East German photography

It was curated by Matthew Shaul of the University of Hertfordshire Galleries, second venue for the show which opened there in November. To tie in with the exhibition, a day long conference was organised, entitled 'The Development of Democratic Visual Languages During and After Dictatorship', a perhaps less than enticing title for what was actually a fascinating and productive experience.

It took place on Saturday 1 December 2007, and began at 10.30am. I was delayed on my drive from Bristol, and missed the introductory talk from Matthew Shaul. But I had already heard the gist of it in Manchester. The exhibition presents previously unknown photographers from the former East Germany whose work is so challenging and absorbing, they demand to be considered on a par with the best photographers anywhere in the world. The exhibition raises many questions, and so the conference provided an ideal forum to pursue them further.

Dr Erica Carter spoke about Portraiture and Personality and investigated the different approaches to the portrait in East Germany as compared with the West.

Dr Josie McLellan of the University of Bristol talked about amateur and professional nude photography in East Germany, and how it developed from a more conventional style of representation in the earlier years into something which by the 80s was attempting to challenge and subvert the convention, often falling foul of the state censor.

Erasmus Schröter talked about the East German 'genuine photo' postcard. These monochrome postcards were printed on real photographic paper and sold in their millions right up to the end of the GDR in 1989. He showed us a selection of scenes from state housing developments, holiday camps and town centres showing examples of censorship, and political name changes - such as the discreet removal of 'Stalin' around the start of the 60s. He gave us an intriguing puzzle to solve. What was missing from the postcards? It turned out to be the absence of the word 'West' from any of the place names. East German housing estates or holiday camps were given names ending in 'Ost', 'Nord' or 'Süd' but never 'West'. It was a fascinating talk and provoked many questions from the audience.

T.O. Immisch , curator of photography at Stiftung Moritzburg, a museum in Halle looked at conceptual and installation performers, film makers poets in the 1980s.

Finally we saw the film 'Ordinary Lives' a television documentary by Pamela Meyer-Arndt about three women photographers whose work is featured in the exhibition: Helga Paris, Sibylle Bergemann and the charismatic Gundula Schulze-Eldowy. It was an absorbing and revealing programme and gave an opportunity to get to know the individuals behind some of the most memorable and sometimes shocking photos in the exhibitions.

One important point that came out of the film was the fact that artists in the East were not isolated or cut off. Via the Western media, visitor contacts, as well as books and magazines brought in from the West, they remained fully in contact with cultural and artistic trends. The main restriction was the bar on travel to the West.

There was lunch and a supper afterwards with excellent food and drink where people could chat and network. I met and exchanged business cards with some very interesting people.

All in all the event was highly productive, and deepened my knowledge of a subject I thought I knew nearly most things about. Through seeing and understanding the photos and getting to know the background to the photographers, I felt newly inspired to pursue my own photographic and artistic goals.

See my review of Do Not Refreeze exhibition of East German photography

Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2007-12-07

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