Photography in East Germany, because of its status as applied art, was not as heavily subject, like painting or sculpture, to censorship by the GDR. Thus, many photographers- Arnold Fischer, Evelyn Richter, Maria Sewcz, Sibylle Bergemann, Gundula Schulze, among others- were able to develop an independent practice that focused less upon the interests of the state and more on the medium’s possibility of working as an alternative network of information. Berlin Palace of the Republic, taken by Bergemann in 1978, is inclusive of the body of independent photographs produced during the 60s and 70s. Through unusual compositional arrangements, contrasts of light and dark, and a valorization of contingent subject matter, her photographs discuss the limitations of visions and refuse to work as political entity. Not only does the photographer deny the compositional codes perpetuated by the aufbau, but through her negation, presents an indirect criticism to the aftermath and effects of the GDR’s various social and building programs upon East Berliners.
Contrary to aufbau’s emphasis on over visibility in the documenting of reality, in Berlin Palace of the Republic, vision is purposely limited. Shot in black and white with a slightly low eye level view, the photograph captures a group of people, leaning on the gallery railing, who seem to be entertained either by the globular lamps located at the ceiling of the Palace of the Republic or by a performance occurring in the main lobby. The bodies, located on the most proximal plane to the viewer, are completely turned away from the latter and are all positioned at the same distance. Not only do the people appear to be backdrop, as a result of their spatial organization and facial anonymity, but they also close the image by constructing a wall between the viewer and the photographic space.
Vision is continuously obstructed throughout the photograph: the inclusion of the wooden floors denying proximity to the photographed people, the presence of cropped figures on both sides of the photographic frame, the railing that traverses the horizontal plane and disjoints the photograph in half, the blinding light which, as bright as it is, is incapable of illuminating anything but itself, and the incapacity of discerning the figures located in the far background. What is achieved through the limiting of the viewer’s vision to the photographic image is a reproach against the misuse of photographs as documents of truth by the GDR. By presenting a photograph that is constantly limiting vision, Bergemann suggests public approval for the GDR, in state sponsored photographs, as misleading and only achieved through bird’s eye view compositions of overly visible gatherings of people- the arrangement and organization of masses- uninterrupted by individual stories or accounts. Thus, similar to the way that the camera is unable to light the backs of people in the foreground, so too does the dissemination of aufbau photographs obscure, rather than reveal, the true condition of the lives of East Berliners.
The horizontal and linear organization of the figures, as well as the movement of the railing traversing through the photographic space, attribute, to the people, immobility and a sense of being static. The globular lamps, on the other hand, with its intense light that pulsates outwards is the only element in the photograph that reverberates and directly contrasts with the darkened, immobile, and faceless figures. The fact that the darkened bodies are facing the artificial light invites questions pertaining the benefits brought upon by GDR rule. Taken in 1978, Berlin Palace of the Republic documents the quality of life after the completion of the various building and social campaigns of the 1950s; the photograph however, instead of reaffirming the superiority of the newly built soviet society, undermines it by transferring the radiance, which supposedly now belongs to the new socialist individuals, to objects. The public, instead of benefiting from socialist ideology, become subservient to it through spectacles of light.
With the figures covered in darkness and turned away from the camera, the crawling baby, wearing a long sleeved white shirt and facing the viewer, emerges from the crowd- his presence further highlighted by the black trouser that frames and contains the white. The child, through the use of lighting, is connected with the globular lamps and, if read in this context, connotes the new illuminated generation that will grow in the newly constructed East German State. However, because he is separated from his caretaker who seems too intent upon observing the spectacle of lights to supervise the child, a sense of loss and fragility surrounds the infant as he helplessly attempts to crawl while simultaneously glancing upwards in search of lost parents. Fragility, moreover, is further emphasized with the positioning of the baby so close to the ledge of the gallery space. Much like the infant or the immateriality of light, so was the fragility of the people’s beliefs in the future of the GDR in the 1970s; a time when the debris of the building campaigns had finally settled and the people were slowly realizing that utopia had not arrived as promised.
Berlin Palace of the Republic captures the contingent as the camera shifts its focus away from central action and onto human reception- people looking at an event in the Palace of the Republic as opposed to the event itself. Directly differing from the preference of aufbau photography in capturing the entirety of the action scene or social event, Bergemann opts for sidelines in order to expose the ambiguity and subjective human experience that state sponsored photographs consciously strived to eliminate. Through a semi-distanced lower eye level shot of the backs of a group of spectators, the symbolic use of light and dark, and the incorporation of visual obstruction, the photograph resists direct interpretation while concurrently welcoming alternative and subjective readings and experiencing of the image.
ann arbor, usa. 2009