Der große Schwof
Feste feiern im Osten. Von der Stadt aufs Land
Claus Bach, Sibylle Bergemann, Christian Borchert, Wolfgang Gregor, Harald Hauswald, Bernd Hiepe, Thomas Kläber, Eberhard Klöppel, Werner Mahler, Olaf Martens, Ludwig Rauch, Ludwig Schirmer, Erasmus Schröter, Wolfgang G. Schröter, Ines Thate-Keler, Gerhard Weber
“Historians have found that in all cultures 30 to 40 years form an epochal wave because this is where communicative memory begins to transform into cultural memory.”
Partying, dancing, drinking: “Schwofen” has always been considered a welcome outlet for pent-up energy. People meet spontaneously or organized, in private or unofficial, often specially created places. Every country and every society has recognizable characteristics. Even and especially under restrictive conditions like in the GDR.
This exhibition is a photographic celebration of remembrance: a carefree way of celebrating in a country that no longer exists. About its lively subculture, which gives an image of its inner state – beyond all clichés.
Celebrate celebrations: Photographers tell stories of their generation. Their images range from exclusive, even anarchic clubs to private bohemians and everyday niches to the stiff rituals of official state celebrations, from rural communities and traditional customs to the urban party scene. While things might have been a bit more exquisite and less cordial, at least at the beginning, everyone was usually in each other’s arms at the end.
All 31 artists involved in this show were born in eastern Germany, 26 studied at the Hochschule für Graphik und Buchkunst in Leipzig, seven left the GDR, six are no longer alive. None of them have a carefree, unbroken biography.
In the texts that accompany the photographs shown, they themselves provide insights into their lives, their artistic views and the situations in which their pictures were created. As part of this exhibition, you can also see films in German with detailed interviews: eleven artists report on their specific living and working conditions.
Beyond all the clichés of the gray East, the presentations in Cottbus and Frankfurt (Oder) show a most surprising piece of everyday culture – lively, colorful and surprisingly diverse. While the exhibition in the Dieselkraftwerk Cottbus focuses on ironic observations on the sidelines of official state events, the exhibition part in the Rathaushalle Frankfurt (Oder) looks at festivals in the village and in the city.
“Der große Schwof – Feste feiern im Osten”: The exhibition is more than a museum document of remembrance. It brings together photographers who were among the best and most famous in the GDR. The quality of their work deserves attention, preservation and dissemination across borders – as an important, often underestimated part of our common culture. And that should be celebrated here. Enjoy yourself!
Spontanparty im Café (Spontaneous party at the Café)
Things started pragmatically. On Rose Monday, a core of the student carnival party actors had arranged to meet up in the Weimar “Café Resi” to sober up in the morning. That opened at ten o’clock. A Christian time for breakfast and gossip. If the body could tolerate it. After all, some of them were still in costume from the Sunday party and had landed seamlessly in the trendy café from one of the three local student clubs. Sleep was overrated. Room decorations in the form of colorful paper garlands and waitresses made up as kittens gave the house the right flair. At the beginning everything was calm and relaxed, accompanied by the first short songs and silly sayings. Until the crowds got bigger and bigger. Apparently word got around quickly and became a dynamic scene – a sure-fire success. Spontaneous party at Resi, sounds good. Around midday, staff and guests put together the round tables and chairs and moved almost everything to the upper floor to make more space. The waitresses had also adopted a kind of pragmatic partial self-service, which avoided stressful jostling and accidents. Glasses were withdrawn as a preventive measure. Apart from coffee and tea, all other drinks were sold in bottles, which people picked up at the counter and brought back the empties. No liquor was served. From now on there was a lively crowd of people singing and dancing endlessly in the café. As an accepted part of this, there was plenty of time to calmly photograph striking scenes of the event. The camera sometimes changed users. Furthermore, the audience increasingly mixed. The working population became part of the boozy frenzy. It was uncomfortably wet and snow-free outside. Suitable for the evening’s sobering-up walk towards the next upcoming celebration.
That Rose Monday fell on February 18, 1980 and, in retrospect, became one of Weimar’s cult parties of that time.
Weimar, March 2023
Christian Borchert in an interview with Jutta Voigt and Peter Pachnicke (excerpt)
V.: Are you shy of contact? Is the camera perhaps a way for you to establish contacts and at the same time a hiding place for unwanted contacts?
B.: The trend is actually like that, photography is a kind of therapy for me, with the camera I get contacts that wouldn’t happen without it. And yet it is complicated to cross the threshold…
B.: I continue to take individual photos, but no longer exclusively… I’m now interested in how people stand together and in relation to each other, not just built groups, but more random, moving ones. But no real action photos either, I no longer have to look for an effect because I’m no longer dependent on the client.
I no longer want to capture the essence in the conscious arrangement, but in the fleeting, accidental things when people meet. Not just on festive occasions – at work, at leisure, at demonstrations, on the street, loose groups that come together and break up again…
V.: And coincidence, what good does that do?
B.: Definitely relaxed, it makes me excited… At the moment I think that chance brings me more reality.
P.: What of this reality do you think is important to capture? What are you looking for?
B.: … I don’t have a narrow concept. I am not looking for. I just want to collect, gather what is around me… and basically act like a tourist, read the newspaper, go to what is announced. … Carnival Tuesday in Dresden, that was such an incredibly crazy day, this pensioners‘ carnival. I took a photo at eight in the morning in the “Quick” café, then I went to the lost and found office because I had lost my tripod. They had it there, and the atmosphere was so cheerful. Out of gratitude, I photographed the women who were there costumed, it was a chain of events that were particularly suited to take pictures of.
„I’m going. I watch. I am silent. I wait and wait. And then, in a sudden moment, I build the motif.”
“I’m interested in the edge of the world, not the middle. The non-interchangeable is what matters to me.”
Why spare time on weekends, why allotment gardens?
In many meetings with workers in large Berlin companies, we always discussed topics of relaxation on the weekends…
Since the city of Berlin-East seemed pretty “extinct” on the weekends and public holidays, I wanted to find out where and how and what many of these workers spend their free time with…
I quickly received honest, friendly invitations from them: “Just come and see us …”
At the beginning I only planned to give the visitors a few photographs as a souvenir…
After one, two, three visits to different gardens, this complete “contrast life” completely captivated me…
I began systematically visiting allotment gardens in Berlin in various parts of the city on the weekends, looking over the fences, talking to lots of relaxed people behind them, following spontaneous invitations, making contacts…
The next two and a half years were characterized by intensive visits to the gardens and their “inhabitants”.
sex and drinking,
actually it’s the other way around, first the question then the answer, so let’s start again from the beginning: Do you know the seven deadly sins of socialism? do you?
see above, that says everything, or describes the meaning of life under the conditions of a dictatorship in a pretty comprehensive way.
actually again, because it was actually the other way around: first came the drinking and if it wasn’t overdone too much, the sex could work.
not only in berlin, but everywhere in the republic there were places, cafés or youth clubs that were known for the fact that between the sexes or those interested in other ways, it only took a very short time to get to know each other before they could then decide together: „Let’s go to my place or “let’s go to you.”
a beer or two in the park or a bottle of wine after curfew on one of the numerous green spaces between the blocks of houses in the prenzlauer berg could often be successful.
i don’t like to talk too much and this is an absolute exception: it happened at the end of the 70s on winsstrasse, i had just come to berlin and had occupied a ground floor apartment with a really big window facing the street.
at that time, macrame was very popular and i sat on my windowsill with a bottle of multi-fruit table wine at 1.75 and fought my way through the tangle of my strips, which were up to 5 meters long.
A young woman came past with a grin, after 2 or 3 meters she turned around and wanted to know more about what i was doing. after 10 minutes i got a second glass, after 15 minutes she climbed into the room. but she then left the apartment through the front door; i think she probably wasn’t completely sober beforehand.
and finally, do you know the four deadly enemies of socialism? do you?
spring, summer, autumn …
as we all know, the seasons still exist today.
by the way, sometimes other meaningful activities were also carried out and not just the deadly sins were served.
About the series „Fasching“ (Carneval) 1987, Erfurt
On November 11, 1986, the first photos were taken of the carnival in Wasungen, near the inner-German border.
Held in two halls, Humtata and Tätärä in the ballroom, with prepared speeches in the Wasung dialect and organized merriment. Next door in the dining room of a school, the small town’s young people were allowed to let off steam at the rock carnival. Together with the “hippies” who had arrived and managed to get past the barriers and checkpoints of the state security forces in front of the city, there was excessive celebration.
At the beginning of March 1987 I continued my series on carnival in Erfurt.
Most of the photos were taken at night, at the end of the celebrations, on the way home, around the Erfurter Anger, a tram crossing point. A wide variety of people met here, coming from private parties, student clubs or other celebrations. This special situation, with the different moods, appealed to me as a photographer.
The carnival days, celebrated in Erfurt (Engelsburg), Weimar (Kasseturm and Schützengasse), at the GDR art colleges, were wild, crazy days of the year for me, time out of time. They had nothing to do with everyday life, where celebrations tended to take place in private niches.
The following year I celebrated and photographed Fasnet with friends in Rottweil and again a year later in Cologne.
Cigarette smoke wafts through the room in clouds. Three men are sitting at the table, each with a beer in front of them. Regulars. They keep an eye on the bar door and register everyone who enters the restaurant. There is a dense crowd in front of the entrance, young people pushing past the counter towards the dance hall. There are two friendly-looking older men sitting directly at the door with a few coins on the table in front of them. Change. They are the entry control.
Inside, couples are twirling around on the dance floor, some smooching, others standing on the edge, a beer or a cigarette in their hand. A uniformed man leans against the counter and a full glass is passed over his head. Two people wearing leather jackets grab each other’s shoulders roughly in the crowd, while a third pulls the brawlers apart. A young man is unsteadily escorted out. He can barely stand on his feet anymore.
They are images like from a film set. A film that takes place in the GDR. Black-and-white. Somewhere, deep in the provinces. In a pub with Sprelacart tables and patterned wallpaper in the pale light of fluorescent tubes. It’s the late seventies. The men wear stringy long hair, checked shirts, denim jackets; the women wear short-sleeved knitted sweaters or white blouses with a freshly blow-dried perm, the landlady wears an apron. Every photo shows a scene, every picture seems to tell a story. At the same time, even details seem natural, random, authentic – probably because they are not images from a film at all. What you see here is real life.
At the end of the 1970s, Thomas Kläber documented dance evenings in his hometown with his camera. His pictures show unique moments of real socialist evening events in the provinces.
Solveig Grothe (Spiegel online)
The dirty pig festival in Mansfelder Land
On Whit Monday all hell broke loose in Ahlsdorf and Hergisdorf. Cannibals, dwarves and many other historical and modern fantasy characters are up to mischief. They spray the villagers, bang with saved New Year’s Eve items – and irritate the messengers of summer (white and hats), also called runners, who brandish their whips threateningly and try to catch the evil spirits. If this succeeds, the bad guys will be beaten, of course only with half their strength. And as soon as such a ghost has escaped again, the game begins anew. For the residents of the two villages, this fun is part of their Pentecost celebration.
However, its roots probably lie thousands of years ago in pagan times.
Near the Lutherstadt Eisleben, the places mentioned are located at the foot of a large slag heap, which was created over many decades by the smelting process in the production of raw copper.
The area between Eisleben, Hettstedt and Sangerhausen became known as Mansfelder Land and is located in the southwestern part of Saxony-Anhalt.
As a photo reporter for the Neue Berliner Illustrierte (NBI) from the mid-1970s onwards, I photographed, among other things, the mining of copper slate (face height less than one meter) in the copper smelters and rolling mills and in the production of high-quality end products.
IT: You received your diploma from the HGB in 1978. Your topic was the village of Berka, the birthplace of Ute. Did you have a clear idea in advance of how you wanted to document village life and the people or did the concept of the series only develop while you were working or when you were developing the form of presentation for the book?
WM: I have a great affinity for village life, and I also had a very intense and positive relationship with this special village – because Ute was born there, because I knew it well and knew what I would find. For these reasons, I decided that I wanted to do a documentary work about life in Berka. However, it was not clear at the beginning exactly what this would look like. But it soon became clear that I was very interested in events in the village – and not so much in a voyeuristic stroll around where you just look at what comes your way. Such images are also part of the series, but that should not be the focus, but rather occasions in which people have something specific to do with each other over a clearly defined period of time. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a house slaughter that starts at five in the morning and ends at ten in the evening, or a two-hour birthday party. I then worked intensively on it for over a year.
IT: So you were able to move around freely on site, you were well known and people treated you with trust.
WM: So there were hardly any locked doors, I could just go into the courtyards, into the kitchens and only have to say one or two sentences about the project and then I could move around freely. Another advantage was that Ludwig Schirmer had already taken a lot of photographs in the village and that Ute’s first fashion series had also taken place there. So it wasn’t particularly strange to people that someone with a camera was jumping around in their environment. I believe that Berka is the most photographed village in Germany because it has been more or less documented for over 50 years. The director Pamela Meyer-Arndt even made a documentary about Berka in 2010 called “Dorfliebe” with photos of Ludwig, Ute and me.
Werner Mahler in conversation with Ingo Taubhorn
SR: …Klaus Honnef talks about the impetuous power of the departure from the East, the fresh air that you brought into photography. How do you see the relevance of your origins yourself?
OM: I think this background is crucial for me. The wall was also a wall of images. You didn’t even know about many trends, so you didn’t have to follow them. There wasn’t this concentrated media power. I had more time to think. This meant that something of our own could be created much more calmly and slowly. Curiously, in some of my photographs from twenty years ago, alleged quotes from photographers that I only noticed years later are being discovered. To confuse this arrogance, originality and epigoneism is sometimes grotesque…
SR: What role does this specific climate in the GDR play for your early, partly documentary, but also hyperreal, erotic scenarios with friends instead of models, through which you became known?
OM: The crazy thing was: In the East there wasn’t this whole erotic market at all. No role models, no prices, no market. Interaction, including sexual intercourse, was much less complicated than it is today. Officially everything was strictly regulated. But privately there were these big escapes and adventures just to survive. The West, on the other hand, was much more prudish than it initially appeared. And this huge market only represents an attempt to somehow obtain substitute satisfaction for all the unmet needs. I think you can see this in my photos.
Sabine Reinhard in an interview with Olaf Martens
In 1988 I was a student of Prof. Arno Fischer at the HGB Leipzig.
I took photos in this hip discotheque on Schönhauser Alle in Prenzlauer Berg for about a year.
Because it was unusual for someone to take photos in a disco back then, I asked the DJ to make an announcement at the beginning so people knew.
That worked really well, many people spoke to me and then later came to my studio to look at the photos and of course they also received prints from me.
Word got around very quickly and after a short time I was known and was able to take photos very freely.
In 2001, in my father Ludwig Schirmer’s estate, we found around 120 35mm and medium format films from the 1950s in Berka, while he worked as a miller and took photographs in his free time.
The material was not organized, there were only a few prints, hardly any contacts, and the films from some contacts were no longer available.
He must have forgotten these pictures, which he had taken with such ease, almost casually. Maybe that’s why he didn’t take her seriously?
After my father went to Berlin and became an advertising photographer, he always did freelance work alongside his commissions. He always longed to do “real” photography. He had the recognition in the field of advertising, but he was always passionate enough to want more.
The photos shown here were taken using the so-called dark flash method.
A black filter filters out all visible parts of the white flash light. Only the invisible infrared light leaves the flash unit and is used to expose the infrared film NI 750 from ORWO.
This makes it possible to photograph people in the dark in a very unobtrusive manner. Without noticing the photographer, they remain in their positions and do not pose in front of the camera.
The infrared light penetrates just below the surface of the skin. This special quality reinforces the psychologizing effect of the photographs.
The narrow-format images were created by simultaneously copying two consecutive exposures on the negative film.
These are not images that tell a story, they are not documentary or reportage photos; they are self-contained individual images.
They are subjective reflections on events and situations that have a great fascination for me in the dark.
from: Erasmus Schröter, NACHTS, Leipzig 1982 (diploma thesis)
Wolfgang G. Schröter
Excerpt from a previously unpublished interview by Grit Wendelberger with Wolfgang G. Schröter, on the occasion of the exhibition “Microcosm and Macrocosm – Worlds of Images by Wolfgang G. Schröter” Leipzig, Markleeberg
GW: “…What makes your work consistent? Where is the common thread that runs through the work?
WG: “There are several common threads – there is the challenge of live photography, which arose on my long trips (including to China) or at important events (Heisenberg put his “world formula” up for discussion in Leipzig 50 years ago). And there are the photomechanical and electronic experiments with images commissioned by ZEISS and ORWO.”
GW: “What drives a person to take pictures over such a long period of time?”
WG: “What drives and defines a good craftsman: standing up for your work and making the best of it. Immense curiosity, joy in doing things despite the effort and always finding happiness.”
GW: “Was the rapidly developing technology inside and outside of photography an incentive or a limit to your own creativity?”
WG: “Encouragement – like curiosity. Technical innovations change our perspectives and make them possible. That’s why the range of my work groups ranges from live images to experiments with images from the micro and macrocosm. Speaking of the macrocosm: let us think of the developing space technology in the 1960s. The microcosm of crystals also appealed to me.”
GW: “What results did your technical experiments lead you to?”
WG: “I knew the latest photographic developments on their way from black and white to color photography and was one of the first to try out my own photographic techniques, including electronics.
My aim was always to make the fascination – for example of space – visible. To ‘translate’ a purely technical image into an aesthetic image, to illustrate it.”
GW: “Which works and groups of works are particularly important to you, are there other fields of creativity?”
WG: “… the live images are more important to me than the experimental images.”
Wolfgang Kil about Ines Thate-Keler
It is difficult to discover Ines Thate-Keler‘s method or the typical characteristics of her photography when looking at a specific image. What she most readily admits to is her preferred subject, and it doesn’t sound unusual: “I’m particularly interested in people. However, I’m less interested in the type, but rather in the search of the relationships that people have with each other and with the objects of their affection, perhaps you could also say: with their entire sphere of life; or sometimes not have it.”
“First of all, just feel, have all your antennae out,” she says when asked how a photographic interest in a particular person arises, and: “First of all, you have to feel a fundamental affection for the people. If you then photograph the individual, that doesn’t rule out a critical perspective.”
Ines Thate-Keler names sensitivity as the main prerequisite for counteracting whitewashing with a view of the essential and sensation with discretion.
Avoiding indiscretion when taking photos that are all about immediacy: “It just makes a difference whether you are very close or just the camera.” With such an attitude there is no longer any need for controlling calculations – no one is being exposed here. The people in these pictures are protected from embarrassing intrusiveness, and if there is sometimes something mysterious about them, that is only natural and definitely beneficial to a photograph that you would like to look at more often.
published in: SUNDAY. Weekly newspaper for culture, politics, art and entertainment, No. 22, Berlin 1982
For over 60 years, photographer Gerhard Weber has systematically, documented and sensitively observed and documented rural and small town life in central and western Saxony, especially around Grimma, Borna, Wurzen, Geithain, Colditz, Döbeln, Leisnig and Bad Lausick -captured in powerful images.
For his professional colleagues, he is respectfully the “provincial photographer,” and his fans affectionately call him the “country photographer.” Some of his role models are the American photographer Dorothea Lange with her documentary photographs of agricultural workers in the USA in the 1930s, Heinrich Zille and his milieu studies and the writers Erwin Strittmatter (The Shop) and Helmut Sakowski (Wege übers Land) with their wonderful stories, especially from people in the countryside. The photographer was particularly impressed by the women in the GDR. Full of respect for life and work in socialist agriculture and in the state-owned enterprises (VEB). Their work performance was impressive; while the men operated the machines, tractors and combine harvesters, the heavy physical work often fell on the shoulders of the women. Their life wasn’t easy. Work, family, children, household and the scarcity economy required a lot of effort. Nevertheless, their optimism was always admirable.
In addition to the press photographs from the 1960s to the 1980s, which were commissioned by the Leipziger Volkszeitung, Gerhard Weber created a large selection of free photographs that grant an objective, sober and unvarnished insight into the lives of people in the real socialism in the former GDR. From today’s perspective, many of these images are filled with thoughtfulness and also a certain cheerfulness.
Gerhard Weber’s photographs predominantly show milieu portraits of women, men and families in the countryside, at work, in their free time and in their very private areas, where they are at home. People can be seen in all the photographs in this exhibition. Honest, natural, truthful, unvarnished and unstyled. In this way he created a monument to the common people, which will also be important for future generations.
from: Gerhard Weber. Out in the country – Inside in the village – In the middle of the city. 60 years of photography in the Muldenland and Leipziger Land, leaflet for the 2021 exhibition of the same name