Working in fashion and reportage, the photographer cultivated a distinctive visual language. Her retrospective is a window into history in Berlin.
The Sibylle Bergemann retrospective at the Berlinische Galerie—an institution focused on art made in Berlin in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries—aligns the late German photographer’s work with a particular haltung. While that word translates directly to “attitude,” the German is more expansive in conveying a way of relating to something, describing a kind of inner compass that guides thoughts and actions. In the myriad photographs that comprise Town and Country and Dogs: Photographs 1966–2010, something in the quality of Bergemann’s observation, whether for a fashion editorial, commissioned reportage, or her own projects, lends the images a palpable coherence. A quiet sensibility, subtler than style, imbues the works on view, and is bolstered by her continuous return to several motifs: women (self-possessed, often in center frame); juxtapositions between remnants of demolished East Berlin and new architectural constructions; and windows, dogs, and people on the move.
Bergemann’s mode of documenting—and implicitly addressing—the world around her developed out of the political context of the German Democratic Republic. The native Berliner was just twenty years old when West Berlin was sealed from the East by a wall in 1961 that prevented passage between the regions. While state-sanctioned photography glorified happy workers in vibrant color, Bergemann’s photography stood adjacent to such posturing. Alongside a few other photographers, including her future husband, Arno Fischer, Bergemann formed Gruppe Direkt in 1965, a collective that articulated its members’ principles of free observation. Their preference for black-and-white photography may have been a question of access (color film, like much else, was hard to come by in the GDR), but it also accentuated the contrast between their images and those produced by the state.
The group’s divergence in style and subject matter was largely subtle enough to avoid censorship. However, Bergemann’s Marisa und Liane, Sellin (1981)—a photograph of two women in black racerback dresses beside a row of beach cabanas on the island of Rügen—was edited before it ran in the popular fashion magazine Sibylle: the printer manually retouched the blonde’s scowl to turn her lips up into a smile. The original photo, with the woman’s arresting glare, would become one of Bergemann’s most iconic images and was prescient in tapping into a burgeoning sense of discontent in the GDR.
Another of Bergemann’s most striking images also took on a sense of meaning beyond its original context from February 1986. The image shows a life-size bronze statue of Friedrich Engels, coauthor of The Communist Manifesto, and was made as part of her series Das Denkmal (The Monument) (1975–86), a commission from the East German Ministry of Culture to document the creation of the Karl Marx and Engels monument in Berlin’s Mitte district. Bound in rope, the statue is suspended at a seemingly precarious angle as it is lowered to the ground. The monument bisects the picture plane on a diagonal, while several GDR buildings, including the TV tower that had been built as a symbol of Communist power twenty years prior, hug the corners of the frame.
When the wall came down a few years later, Bergemann’s image began to circulate, mistaken as a depiction of the statue’s removal, rather than its installation. (It still stands, beside the seated Marx, in Berlin’s Mitte district.) The mix-up is emblematic of how Bergemann was able to work within, and quietly transcend, the parameters of her commissions. While securing significant opportunities—notions of women’s role in society were relatively progressive in the GDR, particularly compared to West Germany—Bergemann also cultivated a moving visual language. Nine photographs from The Monument series are hung in a grid in the exhibition in Berlin, concluding with the image of the dangling statue. The photographs seem like a study of tones of gray, as Bergemann captures the monument as a work in progress in sequential moments that are anything but grandiose.
Bergemann’s reportage of mounting protests in East Berlin in the weeks before the fall of the wall and the commotion after its toppling are similarly understated. In a small black-and-white photograph titled Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin (1989) she captures a procession of people carrying white candles alongside the elevated railway at Schönhauser Allee. In a another photograph, she lingers on the vacant street after the vigil: the arches beneath the train tracks, spindly winter trees, and several white candles left standing at the edge of the sidewalk. The image appears like a haunting harbinger of the streets that would soon be emptied as scores of East Berliners traversed the breached wall. It is also perhaps an elegy for what the socialist state might have been, in line with writer Christa Wolf’s declaration in her famous speech a few days before the wall toppled: “Revolutions happen from the bottom up . . . Let’s dream with our eyes wide open. Imagine this, it is socialism and no one wants to leave.”
But leave they did, including Bergemann, who namely went on far-flung international travels to Yemen, Portugal, and Senegal, on assignment for GEO magazine. The photographs taken on these trips until her death in 2010 conclude the exhibition, bringing Bergemann’s perspective into color and turning it toward the world at large. A group of photos from her 1999 trip to the mudbrick town of Shibam in Yemen is particularly stirring, as Bergemann carefully developed the images herself in the darkroom, drawing out numerous tones of beige, white, and pale pink. But Berlin remained her greatest muse, and she always eagerly returned home to document its ever-changing face. As such, this exhibition functions like a window not only into history, but also into the present, underscoring Berlin as a city where the past hangs close to everyday life.
Sibylle Bergemann: Town and Country and Dogs, Photographs 1966–2010 is on view at the Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, through October 10, 2022.
Camila McHugh is a curator and art critic based in Berlin.