Showing the Colours

Press and commissioned photography in the German Democratic Republic

Carola Jüllig | 1 December 2020

The collections of the East German Museum für Deutsche Geschichte contained a great number of photographs, which were taken into the picture library of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 1990 and since that time continually expanded. Alongside socio-documentary and critical photos, the DHM began at the beginning of the 1990s to acquire more official press photos through endowments and by purchasing a number of estates. In her DHM blog, Carola Jüllig, head of the photography department, gives us insight into the state of the picture collection.

A young woman with a red headscarf, red-striped blouse and blue trousers is framed against the cloudless blue sky. She smiles as she holds the steering wheel of a tractor, whose red steering rod juts into the blue sky while she looks steadily into the distance. With this engaging motif by Martin Schmidt, the Deutsches Historisches Museum promoted the 2014 exhibition “Colour for the Republic – Commissioned photography on life in the GDR”. It was an initial attempt to take up a previously neglected topic of GDR photography: the role of colour photography in the press and commissioned photography since the 1960s.

How colour made its way into the photo collection of the DHM

With the demise of the GDR, interest in the artistic legacy of the “other” Germany grew in the Federal Republic. In the area of photography, it was above all the artistic, critical and socio-documentary pictures of the GDR that were exhibited, published and studied. They were unvarnished black-and-white images that peered behind the glossy surface of socialist propaganda. Such motifs by photographers like Ute and Werner Mahler, Gundula Schulze-Eldowy or Harald Hauswald were taken into the museum’s collections.

Since the beginning of the 1990s the Deutsches Historisches Museum has deliberately been acquiring archives and estates of other East German (press) photographers, with the aim of augmenting these stocks. This new focal point initially came about when the extensive collection of the Museum für Deutsche Geschichte was transferred to the DHM in 1990. For East German photographers, the end of the GDR often meant the end of their career, because their principal employer no longer existed. Some of them then offered their life’s work to our museum – an opportunity which we gladly seized in order to be able devote ourselves to the largely neglected field of press and commissioned photography.

In 1992 and 2002 the archives of the photojournalists Martin Schmidt (1925–2019) and Kurt Schwarzer (1927–2012) came to the Deutsches Historisches Museum. The two photojournalists were typical representatives of their discipline. Both, like many other photographers and photojournalists (most of them male), were self-taught and began their careers in the 1950s. They saw themselves as professional journalists; but as freelancers, they were in a minority in the GDR. They both gave tens of thousands of negatives to the museum, mostly black-and-white, but also colour negatives and positives. The photographs cover a broad palette of topics, because they both worked for many different clients – newspapers and magazines, publishing houses, companies, mass organisations. Martin Schmidt concentrated on agricultural topics and worked for the “Society for German-Soviet Friendship” and other mass organisations, while Kurt Schwarzer photographed primarily for women’s journals, but also for cookbooks. Today their pictures grant us insights into the work and everyday life in the GDR from the 1950s to the 1980s – always, to be sure, anticipating the censorship, because critical pictures could not be sold, and the photographers knew what goes and what would not be printed. Run-down machinery and factory facilities or long lines queuing up in front of shops were undesirable motifs. The pictures should spread optimism and show the pioneering spirit on the way to the socialist society. None the less, they show us many details of the reality of life in the GDR.

The next generation

Uwe Steinberg belonged to a younger, very different generation. Born in 1942, the photographer died in 1983, leaving behind an extensive, diverse oeuvre, which was purchased by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in 2017. Steinberg also began his photography career as an autodidact. After graduating from high school (Abitur) in 1961 and working for ADN-Zentralbild, he completed a distance learning study programme at the “Fachschule für Journalistik” in Leipzig and founded the “Gruppe Jugendfoto Berlin” (Youth Photo Group Berlin) in East Berlin in 1969. Steinberg became known for his poetical impressions of Berlin, as we see, for example, in his photos of the market hall at Alexanderplatz and his numerous reportages for the Neue Berliner Illustrierte (NBI), for which he had been photographing since 1970. It is all the more surprising to find so many colour photos in Uwe Steinberg’s work, because there were only very limited possibilities of publishing colour pictures in magazines and journals for technical and financial reasons. The popular, high-circulation weekly Neue Berliner Illustrierte, however, distinguished itself by printed elaborate pages in colour, for which Steinberg provided the images. He produced a mixture of black-and-white and colour photographs particularly on his trips to Hungary, Vietnam, Cambodia and Egypt as well as in his photos of bands, singers and festivals. It is the great diversity of topics and motifs that makes his work so interesting for the museum. While Schmidt and Schwarzer saw themselves as “handworkers” without artistic ambitions, Steinberg belonged to a generation that understood photography as autonomous artistic expression and explored such possibilities in “real existing socialism”.

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Coloured “For Export”

In 2019 the museum acquired the archive of Peter Straube (born in 1936). Trained as an electrician, Straube began working on the side as a photographer in 1961 and was hired as such by the “Zeitschrift des Außenhandels der DDR” (Magazine for foreign trade of the GDR) in 1973. For “GDR export”, for brochures and other advertising materials, he took photos until the end of the 1980s in all the major companies and combines of the chemical and textile industries, in factories producing conveyor technology, in polygraphic companies, in agricultural and foodstuff technology, in refrigeration technology, vehicle manufacturing and other branches – and for the most part in colour. The foreign trade sector used these photos to promote GDR products and sell them in socialist and non-socialist countries. Straube presented all facets of the companies. Production, machines and workers are all shown in their best light, as are the products themselves. Factory canteens, break rooms, libraries and the factory facilities are portrayed, but he also shows the companies presenting their wares at the Leipzig Fair, the most important showcase of the GDR industries. Straube’s pictures supplement the works of Martin Schmidt and Kurt Schwarzer both in the motifs he selected and the time period covered: his photography continued on into the 1990s. He concentrated above all on the key industries of the GDR, such as the chemical and textile branches. The pictures take us by surprise with their ambitious, overtly abstract compositions, which are reminiscent of the avantgarde photography of the 1920s.

“View into the present”

Finally, in 2020 the museum acquired the estate of the press photographer Joachim Fieguth (1942–2019). After training as a photo lab technician and completing his studies in photography at the Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig in 1971, Fieguth began working for the newspapers “Berliner Zeitung” and “Neues Deutschland”. Here he covered different subjects on a daily basis: official state visits and government activities in the GDR and abroad, the economy, the areas of agriculture, sport, culture and health care, as well as everyday topics. From 1991 until his death in 2019 he worked freelance for national and Berlin newspapers. His very extensive work is distinguished by the abundance of topics, because Fieguth – unlike Schmidt, Schwarzer, Steinberg and Straube – covered the “big” political topics. Moreover, he was active long after the end of the GDR, so that his pictures also tell of the period of reunification and expand this view into the present.

With these five archives, the museum has a treasure that can serve as the basis for many exhibitions, publications and research projects on day-to-day life and photography in the GDR. For autumn 2022, for example, an extensive exhibition is being prepared on the topic of a comparison of the industrial photography in East and West.