Germany was the leader in photographic technology throughout the 19th-20th century with brands such as Rollei and Leica paving the way for modern photographers. Although photojournalism was the predominant manifestation of the medium in the early 20th century, there was still room for further artistic expression.
Post-war Germany swung from the extremes of fascism to communism, its photography becoming more diverse as its political landscape changed. Germany’s varied but often brutal history has left a remarkably rich photographic legacy.
1. Yevgeny Khaldei – Soviet soldier raises a flag over the Reichstag, Berlin, Germany, May 1945
In the last days of WW2, as the struggle for Berlin was raging, Stalin opened a heavy assault on the city on the morning of 16th April 1945, determined to capture it before the Western Allies. The battle for Berlin lasted almost two weeks and resulted in tens of thousands of casualties, but by 30th April Soviet troops had reached the Reichstag and successfully placed a flag atop its roof. Though the flag was removed the following morning by German defenders, the building was finally conquered on May 2nd and a new flag was raised and captured on film by an unknown Soviet Soldier. The Nazis had lost Berlin.
This shot is one of the most important images of the 20th century, symbolising the end of one of the most tyrannical regimes ever to have existed, and capturing the devastation of a war that affected the entire world.
2.Unknown photographer – Dismantling the Berlin Wall, 1989
Walter Ulbricht’s governmental decision to build the barbed wire and concrete “Antifaschistischer Schutzwall,” or “antifascist bulwark,” between East and West Berlin, served the objective of stemming defections from East to West Berlin. The Berlin Mauer stood until November 9th 1989 when the head of the East German Communist Party announced that citizens of the GDR could cross the border. That afternoon, ecstatic crowds swarmed the wall, bringing hammers and picks to destroy it. The fall of the Berlin Wall remains one of the most enduring symbols of the Cold War, and images of its destruction provide us with hope during these days of political division.
3. August Sander -Farmer Children, Westerwald, 1827-28
August Sander was a master of portrait photography whose influence can be be felt across 20th century photography in the works of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Richard Avedon to name but a few. His most significant project was called The People of the Twentieth Century, an encyclopedic survey of people from all social backgrounds and classes from the first half of the twentieth century.
His aim was to strip people of the sociological factors that defined them and show their humanity. His working life in Germany spanned the First World War, the interwar years and the rise of the Nazi party, the Second World War and its aftermath. As a result, his work is an unflinching document of society going through huge change. Reflecting both political convulsions in Germany and a society coming to terms with the impact of industrialisation, his vision remains powerful while his portraits still resonate today.
4. Régis Bossu – The ‘Soviet Kiss’, 1979
The socialist fraternal kiss or fraternal embrace was a form of greeting between the state leaders of Communist countries. The act demonstrated a special connection what existed between socialist states and consisted of an embrace combined with a series of three kisses on alternate cheeks. In rare cases, when the leaders considered themselves exceptionally close, the kisses were delivered on the mouth.
This famous greeting between Brezhnev and East German leader Erich Honecker in 1979 was later immortalized in a mural titled God Help Me Survive This Deadly Love on the remains of the Berlin Wall.
5. Wolfgang Tillmans – Alex & Lutz sitting in the trees, 1992
One of the leading figures of contemporary photography today is Wolfgang Tillmans, an artist whose work is distinguished by intimacy, familiarity and unabashed emotion. Shooting portraits and still-lives of friends and models in day to day situations, Tillmans has become famous for his unique ability to make the viewer feel they are part of his private life. Working primarily in colour, Tillmans’ work from the nineties is still refreshingly modern. Since 2016 Tillmans has been at the forefront of the anti-Brexit campaign in Europe, which reminds us that his work, which features themes of inclusivity, is a celebration of not just the German spirit, but European culture as a whole.
6. Bernd & Hilla Becher – “Wasserturm”, 1965-1997
From their seminal series Water Towers, 1972-2009, this collection of standardized black and white images of water towers gathered throughout various locations in Germany is an excellent example of the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The photographs set out to create a typological index of industrial architecture and were taken across a number of years.
Each photograph was produced following the same setup with a large-format camera positioned at the same acute distance as the pictures previously, to capture one perspective of the construction. The artists originally classified the edifices according to their shared characteristics. By being placed next to each other the Water Towers reveal the human ingenuity and creativity behind the architects who designed them and transform from functional to beautiful.
7. Helmut Newton – Rainer Werner Fassbinder drinking beer, Munich, 1980
Helmut Newton is considered to have given fashion photography narrative depth by creating stylized scenes and a adopting a shocking, humorous and erotic aesthetic. Inspired by film noir, Expressionist cinema and S&M, Newton’s images are controversial, provocative, and heavily voyeuristic in nature.
In this brilliant photograph Newton captures ‘L’enfant terrible’ of postwar German cinema, Rainer Werner Fassbinder. The vagabond filmmaker made films with fearless bravado, deconstructing genres and creating stories with political subtexts and subversive undertones. Here he is captured in a german kneipe (pub) looking unimpressed and ready to drink anyone under the table.
8. Anders Petersen – Cafe Lehmitz, Hamburg, 1967
When Anders Petersen stumbled across Café Lehmitz one night, he was searching for somewhere to drink. But his first encounter with the regulars of this now-famed drinking establishment led him on a journey that would last 3 years and would result in one of the most famous photobooks in the history of European photography. Documenting the joys and sorrows of the people who frequented this bar, Petersen welcomes us into a world of chaos and tenderness full of unforgettable characters.
“The people at the Café Lehmitz had a presence and a sincerity that I myself lacked. It was okay to be desperate, to be tender, to sit all alone or share the company of others. There was a great warmth and tolerance in this destitute setting.” – Anders Petersen
9. Andreas Gursky – The Rhine II, 1999
In 2011 ‘Rhein II’ by Andreas Gursky, an image of the river Rhine set against grassy banks, was sold at £2.7 million, making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. This record has since been broken by photographer Peter Lik for his photograph ‘Phantom’.
Gursky’s printed image measures 190x360cm and is a large format work, a signature characteristic of his. Although it depicts a quiet and empty landscape rather than his usual focus on man-made spaces, Rhein II captures this fragment of the river in characteristic minute detail. Gursky is best known for his photographs of the globalized and industrial world such as building facades, supermarket rows, hotel lobbies and stock exchanges, as well as spaces occupied by thick crowds enjoying their leisure time.
10. Peter Leibing – East German soldier leaps over the barricade separating East and West, August 1961
Berlin was carved into four occupied zones after WW2, divided by the UK, USA, Russia and France. A huge disparity between the Soviet and Western zones resulted in masses of people fleeing the Soviet section in search of freedom. Between the years 1949-1961, 2.5 million people tried to leave the Russian occupied area, resulting in East German leader Walter Ulbricht’s decision to erect a cinder-block wall across the city in 1961.
A few days into life under the Berlin Wall, Associated Press photographer Peter Leibing captured the moment the 19-year-old border guard Hans Conrad Schumann ran and jumped over the barricade separating him from the western sector. The next day, Leibing’s photo ran on the front pages of newspapers across the world, making Schumann a poster child for those yearning for freedom. This picture represents of the 20th century’s enduring moments of rebellion.
All images © their respective owners