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Mace & Crown | April 26, 2017

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'Public and Private: East Germany in Photographs'

Elizabeth Proffitt
Contributing Writer

Hazy black and white photographs lined the walls of the “Public and Private: East Germany in Photographs” exhibit at the Chrysler Museum of Art. Hanging was the work of photographer Ulrich Wüst, who captured the public and private spheres of life in the German Democratic Republic from the 1970s through the 1990s.

Wüst’s photographs showcased the cold and calculated planning of cities and the unique, inner private sphere carefully hidden by uniform structures and dark scenery.

For the most part, the exhibit takes on a dreary and almost surreal tone in some cases, with photos shrouded in fog and rain. Some whimsical photos show that there was a break in the public sphere melancholy, featuring a blown-up photo of children fishing on a pier and intimate photographs of people at nightclubs and parties.

One section of the exhibit entitled “Namen und Zeichen,” or “Names and Symbols,” focused on the lack of recognition and postwar tributes to Jewish citizens that survived Nazi persecution in Germany.

Wüst’s photographic record of this aspect of German history was one that would otherwise not have been highlighted. His work was important because “the regime preferred to commemorate anti-fascists or left-wing resisters of fascism instead of those persecuted on racial or religious grounds.”

While Wüst’s work is primarily black and white, a small portion of this exhibit is in color. The section titled “Leporellos” featured commonplace items that weave together the public and private narrative of the exhibit by showcasing personal items, giving an intimate look into the personal life of the artist.

Wüst’s predilection for black and white photography was less about aesthetics and more about the film that was readily available when he was doing most of his work.

This choice was explained in the museum label for his “Leporellos” series.

“The available GDR color film, manufactured in Wolfen under the trade name ORWO, had poor color accuracy and balance and was almost universally rejected by art photographers.”

“After reunification, when Wüst had access to better quality film and later to digital technology, he experimented more readily with color.”

While most of Wüst’s work was well received in Germany, some controversy surrounded his series titled “Die Pracht der Macht,” or “The Pomp of Power.” Taken from 1984-90, the series was banned outright by the state due to the allegedly conflicting ideologies depicted in photos.

Wüst’s final days in the GDR were immortalized in a series of photographs titled “Spätsommer,” or “Late Summer.” The photos taken from 1989-90 seemed nostalgic and were tinged with the overwhelming feeling that things would be changing very shortly after they were taken. Many of the photos in this series even feature people with suitcases saying goodbye to what they’ve become very familiar with.

Wüst’s series “Die Mauer,” or “The Wall” features pictures of the Berlin Wall immediately after the fall in November 1989. There is a sense of finality in this series similar to “Spätsommer” in subject matter and composition. These photos have a somber tone, and like many of Wüst’s other works, have a sense of isolation because of his inclusion of the vacant areas surrounding the wall.

This exhibit is visually haunting and historically interesting as it gives insight into the ins and outs of many cities that were not widely known. These pictures literally provide a snapshot of an ever-changing country and it’s people.

Wüst’s work shows that behind stark and impersonal cement walls and metal fences there are real people living their lives much like any other city, regardless of the governmental regimes or walls that divide them. This exhibit is a prime example that walls only stand so long and people can live resiliently despite them.

“Public and Private: East Germany in Photographs” will run through March 26, 2017.