This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Festival Rencontres d’Arles as well as the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This provides a good opportunity to discover East German photography. An exhibition at the Festival explores the 1980s through the lens of photographers from the former DDR. The exhibition’s curator, Sonia Voss, granted us an interview.
Your exhibition entitled "Corps Impatients" [Impatient Bodies] offers us a panorama of East German photography between 1980 and 1989. How did you become interested in this era’s photography?
When I arrived in Berlin five years ago, I came across three photographers whom I had never heard of before. I realized that they belonged to a key group of photographers who were, however, little known in France, even among scholars. And since their work was vast, covering the years from 1946 to 1990, I decided to focus on the 1980s. It was a fascinating decade because it predated the fall of the Berlin Wall and witnessed a moment of political relaxation in the world of culture—even though there still was terrible pressure from the regime—and some cracks began to open. Photographers were able to test their limits and experiment. It was a very fertile period. Hence the choice of the 1980s and the angle of “bodies” and self-expression through bodily representation. It was very interesting in the DDR because individual expression had been repressed. The ability to say “I” and to show oneself through photography was in itself liberating, and very daring for the time.
We encounter an utter lack of complexes which leads to great openness about the body.
So photography was a way of carving out some freedom under an authoritarian regime?
It was a medium that was slightly under the radar of the regime. The authorities took some time to recognize photography as an art form: this didn’t happen until the late 1970s. So photography faced fewer restrictions, although not press photography. It was less common to monitor and control photography than literature or painting, for example. Perhaps, in that sense, photography enjoyed some relative freedom. There was a cultural magazine entitled Sybille, which offered a space of freedom, and allowed many photographers to propose their own subjects. All these photographers would develop their own prints in their studios. So there was much work that was done in secret or with relative discretion, work that was done “for the drawer,” as they say, and exhibited among a small circle of friends.
And perhaps precisely the fact that photography belonged to a private circle allowed the photographers to play with that ambiguity in order to subvert censorship?
Quite right. For example, the exhibition opens with a very emblematic series by the photographer Ute Mahler. She is trying to capture a certain truth in this series, and does it by photographing her family and friends. What we see is effectively a point of departure: photography often starts with the intimate, with the photographer’s loved ones or themselves. I asked every photographer to write a text for the exhibition catalog, published by Éditions Xavier Barral. The turn to personal life is a recurring idea in their writing; it’s a pathway to freedom, since public life was closely controlled. People spied on each other a lot. So it was in introspection, in this inward turn and in the invention of one’s own little community that a space of freedom could be constructed.
In what way do the photographs you are featuring in this exhibition reveal freedom of the body?
One thing that struck me as I was discovering these photographs was the prominent presence of nudes. Not an idealized nude, but representation of the body as it really is, as if it were the expression of the irreducibility of the subject in its simplest form. Bodies are a way of expressing the self. Among the photographs, there is also a large number of self-portraits, and I think that turning the lens onto oneself is a strong statement as well as a way of defining who you are. For example, Manfred Paul’s photographs include a series of self-portraits as well as a series he made when his wife was in labor. We are present for the birth.
Where does the exhibition title, "Impatient Bodies", come from?
This is exactly what I meant: bodies clamoring to say “I.” It’s true that at the time the DDR enjoyed great bodily freedom. For example, there are photographs by Gundula Schulze Eldowy who visited neighborhoods inhabited by those living at the margins of society. We encounter an utter lack of complexes which leads to great openness about the body. One isn’t trying to conform to rules of conventional beauty. That generation, in their twenties during the 1980s, was in total disagreement with the dominant ideology and expressed only discontent, impatience, and anger.
The fiftieth Rencontres d’Arles festival… The thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall… A wonderful coincidence?
Yes, absolutely! I am really very happy that this exhibition is being presented at Arles and I must say that the idea of launching the discovery of these photographs at the festival was welcomed by the featured photographers because Arles remains a benchmark. These photographs were exhibited in the 1980s, but in a fragmentary fashion. Now we have an excellent opportunity to reunite them!
Interview by Jean-Baptiste Gauvin
Corps Impatients, East-German Photography, 1980–1989, Les Forges, July 1–September 22, 2019, 10am–7.30pm, Arles
Les Libertés intérieures, texts by Sonia Voss and interviews with artists, Xavier Barral, 2019 (French edition)
The Freedom Within Us, Koenig Books, 2019 (English edition)