The Pervasive Postwar Mood
Photographs by Helga Paris
There is something about Helga Paris’s pictures that tell of experience and feelings that are to a great extent communicable because they are sharable. […] with her measured caution, she has built up body of work rooted in her own biography that has become increasingly concentrated over the years and invested with a huge communicative potential. Her pictures have an additional psychological quality that permits identification in a unique way. We can assume here that this quality derives from Paris’s respect for and appreciation of her subjects, which her pictures in turn are capable of expressing. […]
Helga Paris was born on May 21, 1938 as the youngest of four children in Gollnow, Pomerania (now Goleniów, Poland). Her mother, Gertrud (1904–1982), who came from a working-class family, followed her father, Wilhelm Steffens (1900–1946), a typesetter by profession, from Zossen in Brandenburg to faraway Pomerania. […] Wilhelm Steffens as well as his sons, Wilfried and Werner, were in combat when Gertrud with her daughters, Eva Maria and Helga, followed the evacuation order in March 1945 and joined the westward flood of refugees fleeing the approaching front. Helga has indelible memories of people in prisoners’ clothing, of transportation on open goods wagons, of bombing raids that she survived sheltering beneath the train, and of her father who apparently turned up out of the blue and, in Stettin, pushed the three of them onto a train bursting at the seams, destined for Berlin. On March 6, 1945, her mother reached Zossen with the two children.
The headquarters of the supreme command of the armed forces, which had been based not far from the town since 1939, ordered the building of a total of twenty-four bunkers up to twenty-five-meters deep. Largely unnoticed by the public, the preparations for the large-scale evacuation of the Reich’s supreme authorities and military leadership to Zossen had been launched in the summer of 1943. […] On the date of April 21, 1945, Gertrud Steffen’s journal contains the terse entry: "RUSSIANS". The supreme command of the “group of Soviet armed forces in Germany” had been established in Zossen- Wünsdorf. They stayed here until 1994. Gertrud Steffens and her two daughters made their home in the roughly 3,000-resident small town south of Berlin. This is where the majority of the widely branched family had once lived and where Gertrud’s parents, sisters, and sisters-in-law now lived with their children. Almost all the men had been called up for military duty. Helga’s grandfather Karl Greulich is reported to have travelled to Berlin during the revolutionary turmoil of 1918 with his eldest daughter, Gertrud, to show her Rosa Luxemburg. He died in 1947. Two days after Helga’s father, Wilhelm Steffens, returned home in May 1945, he was picked up without valid papers by a Russian military patrol and interned. Years later, the family received news of his death. […]
For Helga, the postwar years are marked by a stimulating life with her aunts and their children. Thanks to an aunt who used to work in a photographic laboratory, photography is a constant topic. They visit the local cinema whenever they can afford to. For people living on the periphery of Berlin at the time, the nearby city is the natural point of reference. When Helga goes to Berlin in 1956 after completing her university entrance examination, she does not experience the move as a radical turning point.
Arrival in Berlin
In Berlin Helga Paris studied fashion design at the School of Engineering for the Clothing Industry. Visits to exhibitions and the cinema broadened her horizons, and above all the films of the Italian Neorealists, Sergei Eisenstein, and French postwar cinema made a profound and lasting impression. In the metropolis she also developed a growing interest in the fi ne arts and it was there that she encountered the circle surrounding the painter Ronald Paris (*1933), who taught drawing and art history at the School of Engineering and became her husband from 1961 to 1975. […]
Until the birth of her son, Robert, in 1962 Helga worked as a lecturer in costume design and as a commercial artist. Her daughter, Jenny, was born some three years later. Like many other people, Helga also turned to the camera in this period to capture on fi lm her family life and the development of her children. When the later documentary filmmaker Peter Voigt, who had been one of her husband’s friends since their encounters during the rehearsals of the Berliner Ensemble under Bertolt Brecht, saw one of her pictures in 1967, he encouraged her to devote herself with greater intensity to photography.
From that time on, she began taking pictures consciously and searched for her own photographic style. The latter developed particularly through her interest in painting and drama. […]
Helga photographed the rehearsals for productions at the Volksbühne (people’s theater) in Berlin and at the Sofia National Opera. Theater photography, she later claimed, gave her an understanding of her presence as a photographer on the street. Helga appreciated being able to work during rehearsals, as it allowed her to photograph in a trusting atmosphere of shared openness. […]
... the girl, the woman, the mother ...
Around the time that Paris shot her series on Berlin youth (1981–1982), she also traveled to Georgia with the poet Elke Erb, who worked as a translator. The contacts that made this possible despite the restrictions on travel to the USSR were again due to her literary connections. Here, abroad, Paris encountered a conception of femininity that she may have been familiar with from her childhood. The series on which the present selection is based is relatively small—like the series on young people, the photographer limited it in the production phase to a narrow selection. It was now increasingly images that were sought: the anecdotal narrative declined steadily in the course of the photographer’s career. On this trip to Georgia, which at that time had far fewer political connotations in the public mind than Romania, the photographer’s attention seems to have concentrated fully on the utopian potential of what is commonly defined as the “feminine.” It is the care and kindness with which children are nurtured, tables are cleared, and two standing women, conscious of their beauty in bewitching innocence and surrounded by men lying at their feet, lean affectionately against one another.
The woman lying in a hammock, another resting on a bed, and even the child walking across the room exude an aura of unassailable, artlessly mindful autonomy. The entire series of pictures is pervaded by something strangely rhythmic that feeds on the mobility of the formal language and the correspondence of lines. The picture of the girl sitting in a dilapidated entrance to a house liberates the viewer’s gaze for the contexts in which this women’s realm unfolds and at the same time acts like a reminiscence from one’s own childhood. And it is a woman, whose back to the viewer—entirely in the tradition of Caspar David Friedrich—obscures the vision of indefinite urban distance.
Paris would discover similar pictures of confident womanhood a decade later on a trip to Poland. For the time being, however, she focused on the feminine in what was close at hand.
Again the story has its beginnings in everyday observations. Paris has reported how, in the supermarket in her street, she experienced a sudden rift in everyday experience. She had always seen the faces here as “naked,” driven by the everyday worries of obtaining provisions, at the mercy of circumstances. Sometimes, she says, on her good days, she was fascinated by the visibility of this effort. On other, worse days, she was disturbed by the “noise,” the ugliness that seemed to emanate from the endeavor. And she discovered that precisely these people, only a short time later, at the till, waiting to pay for their goods, revealed an entirely different and perhaps their “real” face.
Paris applied for one of the commissions that the Society of Photography within the Cultural Association of the GDR awarded to photographers beginning in the early nineteen-eighties. Hardly ever tied at the outset to any specific purpose, these commissions provided sixty-five East German photographers each the financial basis to realize a self-chosen photographic project in the course of the decade. Safeguarded by the anticipated approval of these projects, these commissions often permitted unsupervised shooting in areas of everyday life generally reserved for the mass media loyal to the government.
Paris sought her images—those of the faces in the supermarket line—in a textile mill in 1984, where she had gained practical work experience while studying fashion design. She produced a series of over twenty portraits of Women at the Clothing Factory VEB Treffmodelle Berlin.
These pictures were mostly taken close to the workplace and are again strongly characterized by the dialogue-type situation between the photographer and her subject. Paris not only outlines a broad spectrum of femininity. Within the strict confines of the portrait, she also reports on the sitter’s respective function within the given production hierarchy and compares them to the individual’s conception of her own womanhood.
This series brings together many of Paris’s previous approaches to the portrait. We discover individuals who wish to be identified in their circumstances as well as those who present themselves to the camera with an almost confrontational poise. We also see a reemergence of the standoffish defensiveness to the photographer as the "others." Important messages are conveyed by the gestures and positions of the arms and hands. The defensive folding of the arms in front of the chest, the self-confirming clasping of the hands, a woman who simply carries on seemingly undisturbed with her work, and another who finds self-assurance by burying her hands in her work coat—all of these (conscious or unconscious) poses articulate a whole range of reactions that, though differently formulated, can also be found during Paris’s project in Halle, which was executed around the same time.
Buildings and Faces: Halle, 1983–85
In the first half of the nineteen-eighties, in an informal gathering with colleagues, the photographer Arno Fischer floated the idea of photographing East Germany based on the model of the American Farm Security Administration from the nineteen-thirties. Paris took the idea seriously and opted for Halle—a central German city with a long history—as her source of inspiration. Everything here and in nearby Bitterfeld revolved around the chemical industry. Her daughter had recently started studying here at the Halle School of Industrial Design Burg Giebichenstein. Initially, Paris scanned the town itself from a distance, but soon found herself confronted with the aggressive attitudes of passers-by who refused to be photographed incidentally as part of the scenery. She discovered that it was important to take precisely these passers-by seriously. If they were allowed to create their own image in dialogue with the camera, they gave the photographer their consent. Paris shot these pictures over a period of three years. She did not intend to depict the disintegration of the town; this happened because she photographed what she saw. […] She derived her visual conception of the town from the shades of gray of the inner structures, which take on an almost surreal life of their own. And she contrasts precisely these photos with those of the people who crossed her path, sometimes welcomingly, sometimes keeping their distance. When the pictures were finally shown in 1990, together with a catalogue produced in 1986, the six-week exhibition was visited by over 16,000 residents of Halle. […]
In the Land of Rubble
For Paris, the opening of the Berlin wall ushered in a phase of reduced passion for photography. Projects that she had embarked on petered out or yielded less-than-satisfactory results. In these new circumstances, she, like many others, had to rediscover herself and the purpose of her own actions. The pressure vessel became, for the time being, a vacuum.
This period coincided with Paris’s first cooperative venture with filmmaker Helke Misselwitz, on whose set her experiences were similar to those in her early years in the theater. Here she possibly also experienced something of that narrative rigor that would strongly color her next projects.
It began, she describes, with a desire and the deliberate decision to investigate an entirely subjective perception for which the external coordinates seemed to be entirely lacking. In 1993 Paris shot a series of photos in the public park Friedrichshain in Berlin, which is situated just a few minutes from her flat. The hill in this park consists of the rubble from the bombed city, dumped here after World War II.
This was the first time that Paris used deliberately cropped, radically fragmenting images, strong close-ups, and photographic unsharpness. These components express the ungraspable relationship between intimacy and distance or, on a different level, a shaking of the ground on which a person stands. It was also the first time that she used “models.” She looked for certain situations and encounters in which she, entirely independently of the specific circumstances and people, could find images for her own feelings. She narrated a photographic tale that stylistically resembles a pointedly nightmarish comic strip. It is perhaps the vaguely menacing feeling of an indistinct presence conjuring up childhood fears that finds expression in these pictures. Paris later remarked that these photographs probably show the childhood fears that the grown woman carries within her. […]
In the superimposition of personal and social biographies and in the stringency of her photographic narrative extending over decades, Helga Paris succeeds in reporting not only on the upheavals of “really existing Socialism,” but also, in the deeper humanity of this world of images, on its utopian origins. The dignity that her gaze is able to impart to each subject, inanimate or human, extends far beyond the ideology of the state in which these photographs were taken. They have a quality that remains valid even when the conditions in society change.
By Inka Schube
(extract from the exhibition catalogue)
*The indirect quotations from Helga Paris are derived from numerous conversions between her and the author in the period from August 2003 to August 2004.