Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain

Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain is the first book to thoroughly evaluate the photography that emerged during Germany’s geopolitical division from the 1950s to the 1980s. With richly illustrated and exhaustively researched analyses of photographic projects from East and West Germany, including exhibitions, photo-essays, private archives, and photo-books, Common Ground constructs a comparative perspective, examining how sequence, seriality and repetition were mobilized to produce forms of solidarity and political agency. Author Sarah James places German postwar photography in the context of Soviet, American, and European photographic developments; the specific cultural experiences of the Cold War; and the shifting politics of German identity. 

[Common Ground] begins in Berlin in 1955, a year which witnessed two momentous events in the photographic culture of postwar Germany. Although both events took place in the same city, they occurred on different sides of the Iron Curtain. The first was opening of the European tour of the American curator Edward Steichen’s The Family Man photography exhibition in September, in West Berlin; the second, conspicuously neglected event, two months later, was the publication in East Berlin of Bertolt Brecht’s photobook Kriegsfibel (‘War Primer’). Both the exhibition and the photobook focused on documentary photography and photo-journalism, drawing on photography as a complex cultural form colouring everyday culture. Steichen’s exhibition was enormously popular in Germany and had a profound influence on the country’s postwar photographic culture. Selected by Steichen from millions of images, the show consisted of more than five hundred photographs arranged in a giant montaged installation. It included the work of prominent figures such as Brassai, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt and Robert Frank, alongside hundreds of professional and amateur photographers from around the world (although the majority were American and European). A vast editorialised installation, grouped into themes such as ‘love’, ‘work’ and ‘birth’, and interwoven with religious proverbs and quotations from poetry and philosophy, The Family of Man optimistically celebrated the unity of man around the world. The show was based on Steichen’s essentialising view of photography and his belief in the medium’s capacity to reveal universal truths. His exhibition addressed the ‘theme’ of mankind by using photography as a means of reinforcing and championing similarity over differences. It proclaimed the end of ideologies, while paradoxically being put to ideological use, fulfilling President Eisenhower’s policy of ‘propaganda without a propaganda tone’ in a government-sponsored world tour, which, under the blanket of universality, promoted American life and democratic values. Brecht’s book, on the other hand, came off worse from its similar entanglement with governmental propaganda, having been rigorously censored for many years by the East German state before it was finally published a year before the author’s death. Deeply influenced by the prewar German photographic culture of Weimar, the primer was underscored by Brecht’s belief in the constructedness of all photographic representations and the inevitability of their ideological use.


Making no claims to chronicle or survey the vest field of East and West German documentary photography that emerged over four decades of the country’s division, the book’s following chapters will examine five significant postwar documentary projects: the major West German photography exhibition What is Man, organised by Karl Pawek in 1964 in homage to Steichen’s The Family Man; the unrealised photo-essays of East German photographer Evelyn Richter; Bernd and Hilla Becher’s life-long collaborative photographic study; the photographic series Totengesichter (‘Dead faces’), begun in 1979 by East German photographer Rudolt Schäfer and lastly the West German photographer Michael Schmidt’s photo-essay Ein-heit (‘U-ni-ty’) assembled from found images and photographs taken by Schmidt between 1991 and 1994. My intention throughout is to bring together not only different photographic forms and practices from east and West Germany – exhibitions, photobooks, life-long collaborations, private archives, site-specific installations, which are not normally explored comprehensively, but also a range of practices previously understood as operating in the disparate fields of photo-journalism, documentary, art photography or conceptualism. Clearly, there are profound differences in each instance, particularly in relation to the authorial act that divides curator from photographer, or singular authorship from collaboration. My justification for comparing this this range of projects is because in their different ways all refuse the singular photographic image and, like Steichen’s exhibition and Brecht’s book, specifically channel the social form offered in photographic seriality, sequence, juxtaposition or repetition. More than this, each one of the documentary projects in question embraces the meta-photographic or photographic sequence in a pedagogic fashion, using either the juxtaposition of difference or the repetition of the same, to attempt to provide specific, and necessarily politicised models for particular ways of seeing. They use photography sequentially or serially to produce a ‘common ground’ that relates the sequenced images, the photographer and spectator, and spectators, producing a shared experience. In many cases, this meant opposing established institutional, instrumental or commercial ‘regimes of vision’. The ways of seeing manifested in each of the projects suggest specific ways of relating to the world which, in turn, as the book’s chapters will reveal, both embodied certain political experiences and produced particular political identities.

Consequently, it must be stressed that this book is not a study of photography that explicitly documented or critically engaged with the Cold War. Nor is it even exclusively concerned with German photography, with one of the chapters exploring a German exhibition of international photography. Instead it is intended – with Brecht and Steichen’s models in mind – as an investigation of the ways in which, during the postwar period and throughout Germany’s division, documentary photography construed as serial, sequential or ‘meta-photography’ became a crucial means through which to interrogate German identity, particularly the relationship between individual and collective identity; between the private and public self; between the subject and the object; between the present and the past. It will also reveal how documentary photography became a central medium with which to explore the cognitive dimension of representation, the inadequacies of representation, and the relationship between representation and reality.

– From the Introduction to Common Ground: German Photographic Cultures Across the Iron Curtain by Sarah E. James

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