The art of withdrawing oneself
An interview with Barbara Klemm
With a calm hand, she reaches for her bag to assure herself of its most valuable content: "I always carry the Leica." For decades, the former FAZ photographer documented the events of her time, while her photos burned into the collective memory in Germany. Barbara Klemm smiles. At the end of the exhibition Leap in Time in Stuttgart, she finds time for an interview.
By Juliane Pfordte
ifa (Institute for Foreign Relations): Ms Klemm, your black-and-white photographs stand for an almost forgotten era of press photography. You once said that you also dream in black and white. Is that correct?
Barbara Klemm: Yes, as far as I can remember, all my dreams are black and white. Do you dream in colour?
ifa: Yes, in multi-colour, in fact. But it was the medium of the newspaper that initially set you on black-and-white photography. Was it still a conscious decision?
Klemm: I also photographed in colour for two years, but that was not my profession. In my opinion, content in black and white can be conveyed more clearly and quickly than in colour. Structures are much clearer in grey and black-and-white tones. Perhaps a coloured image looks more attractive at first, because it immediately catches your eye. But for a successful colour photo, one needs time and design freedom and one does not have that in photo-journalism. It was always important to me that the picture makes readers curious about the article. There is a homogeneity between a black-and-white photo and text. The image does not burst out of the page, it reinforces the text, if it is a good image.
ifa: What makes a good picture?
Klemm: A good composition: the division of the picture into clear forms, which convey and arrange the content quickly – that is a good picture for me.
ifa: Is this informed by artistic considerations? Both of your parents were painters.
Klemm: I grew up with art, it always surrounded me and shaped me unconsciously. I often went to the museum with my father and was amazed by what he knew about painters and paintings. That has certainly stayed with me, especially when it comes to seeing a good composition when recording an event. My father always said I had that in me, but to a certain extent you can also train it. Look, watch, move – that is the best training.
ifa: Have you always seen yourself as a photo artist or journalist?
Klemm: I've always tried to take a good picture – not create an artwork. I never intended my work to be art. That is difficult in photojournalism, because so many factors, which can hardly be influenced play a role.
ifa: And why did you choose photography?
Klemm: That was the idea of my father. He suggested my training as a photographer. Sometimes there are opportunities in life that you just have to grab. I was able to do my training with a portrait artist in Karlsruhe. After that I worked in a repro-company for a short time. But I felt like would have been wasted there – it was terrible to constantly only work on strip advertisements. A colleague from the company was to work for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on producing stereotypes, that is, producing the print copies for the newspaper photos. Since she did not want to go to Frankfurt, I got the job.
ifa: At the FAZ you got to know the photographer and later colleague Wolfgang Haut. He encouraged you to work as a journalist from 1970 onwards. What were the advantages and disadvantages of working in commissioned photography for you?
Klemm: For me, there were only advantages. I needed the pressure from the newspaper to provide the best picture. But the greatest pressure always came from myself. Many things attracted me, so I often worked on trips on top of the FAZ work. From morning to night, I went through the streets trying to capture quite different things, from social issues to culture to landscapes. Often, I photographed to portray articles that had not yet been written.
ifa: How free were you in your work?
Klemm: In that regard, the newspaper was very generous. I could work freely and implement many of my own topics. I sometimes had problems with the captions, for example during the student movement.
ifa: You have never withheld your sympathy for the student movement. How did that influence your work with the rather conservative FAZ?
Klemm: Of course the newspaper was not always pleased. But in the conferences the facts that could be presented, were also to be seen in the pictures. I learned to get my point across. That was not always easy in the men's world at the time.
ifa: How did you feel as a woman in a male-dominated world of politics and photographers?
Klemm: I always tried to do my work well. The rest did not bother me. Clearly I noticed that my colleagues always treated me condescendingly, thinking: "Whatever is that little lady up to..." But ultimately it was the photos that had to struggle against the male colleagues. Over time, they realised that my pictures had a lasting power.
ifa: Did it also have advantages to be a woman?
Klemm: Less so with my colleagues, but in politics, yes. For example at the meeting between Willy Brandt and Leonid Brezhnev. The fact that I was allowed to photograph at this meeting was certainly because I was young and the only woman. When Brezhnev came into the conference room and saw me, he said, "Finally, a woman, I always have men here. That was also the case during my trips to the former Soviet Union. I could move more freely. They were not afraid of me. They underestimated me and my work. In hindsight, I know that was the reason why I rarely had trouble shooting.
ifa: Do you think there is a special female way of seeing in photography?
Klemm: No, there are sensitive and insensitive photographers, but that is not a question of gender. Perhaps women have a different approach. While, for example, I tend to be more reserved, men may have the need to show who they are.
ifa: Erich Salomon, for example, was known to stage himself, even in self-portraits – today we would perhaps speak of the first selfie.
Klemm: Pictures of myself have never interested me. Apart from a picture at the documenta exhibition, which shows me in a video installation from behind, I never took pictures of myself.
ifa: What makes your work different from Solomon's?
Klemm: I think I've always been more political. Salomon was part of the world he photographed – the elite and the politicians. Perhaps that is why he could not quite imagine the national socialism and the Holocaust, even though he himself was a Jew. Perhaps it cost him his own life. But he too, like me, always wanted to show through photography how politics affects our social lives.
ifa: How did people react when they realised that you photographed them?
Klemm: If someone did not want me to use the picture, I always accepted that. If someone became aggressive – this in fact happened from time to time – I tried to mediate and explain that I liked the situation very much and that I worked for the newspaper. Compared to professional photographers today, however, there is a special sensitivity that did not exist at the time. Although everyone photographs everything today and puts it online, people have become more concerned about the rights to their own image.
ifa: From politicians to artists to road scenes in Romania or South Africa – what kind of photography fascinated you most?
Klemm: I've always been interested in people – what happens in the public space, what you can observe on the streets. This is also the space that is most accessible to us photographers. It appeals to me to observe people and see how a situation in the middle of everyday life seems like a production – as if a director had set the people there. If I am able to capture these moments, it is a great feeling. Architecture, on the other hand, has excited me less, although I have nevertheless taken a few good shots.
ifa: In your most recent project, the focus is not on people but on nature.
Klemm: For the Travel Notes project, I followed in Goethe's footsteps on behalf of the Altana Kulturstiftung and visited places he had drawn: among others Weimar, Jena, the Thuringian Forest, the Fichtel Mountains, Rome and Tivoli. This was a wonderful assignment which kept me busy for almost a year. It was nice that my husband was also able to be there, unlike before.
ifa: Your husband Leo Hilbert is a psychoanalyst. How did he influence your empathy, your sense of the right balance between proximity and distance?
Klemm: My husband is incredibly well read. He has often drawn my attention to political issues, aspects that I had not considered before. We often and intensively speak about my work.
ifa: How did you manage to keep a distance from what you photographed?
Klemm: That is the art of withdrawing yourself. It is always a matter of observing, not disturbing or changing the course of events. This is extremely hard, it requires concentration and experience.
ifa: ...Experience you gained when, for example, you made the famous shots of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Klemm: That was the most important event in my entire career as a photographer. I think it was unbelievable for us all to see this wall and the regime behind it fall during our lifetime. At the time, I had to restrain my own emotions in order to be able to see where the events were concentrated. I was already at the Alexanderplatz demonstration of artists on November 4 in Berlin, but at that time no one had any idea what would happen on November 9.
ifa: Do you remember what you did that night?
Klemm: We were out, and I switched on the TV at night, when suddenly a programme was cancelled on the occasion of current events and Helmut Kohl spoke from Warsaw about the events taking place in Berlin. I was immediately aware that the next morning I would take the first plane to Berlin. It was astonishing how the people stood and cheered not only in front of, but also on top of the wall near the Brandenburg Gate.
So I climbed up as well, as I wanted to see what it was like in the East myself. There was only one sole ladder. It was amazing. At that very moment, I photographed the young woman, who asked a border official for an autograph. Suddenly, everyone turned to the West: Willy Brandt, Dietrich Stobbe and Walter Momper stood there. How I would have liked to have photographed these three Berlin mayors with the wall in the background. But I was on top, it was too high to jump, the ladder was too far away, and it was so crowded anyway that you were afraid to push someone down by mistake. So I took the beautiful picture with the three from above.
ifa: And were the only one with that perspective.
Klemm: Yes, that was the constraint. I have learned from Salomon to look for alternative options or get access differently when something goes wrong.
ifa: It is hard to imagine that you have made many mistakes.
Klemm: Oh you’d be wrong (laughs)! For example, at a meeting of François Mitterand and Helmut Kohl. Only when leaving did I notice that I had no film in the camera. Suddenly I stood there blushing, while all the other colleagues left.
ifa: And what did you do?
Klemm: I walked around the building – it was a small castle in the Palatinate region. And that is how I got a good picture of Kohl and Mitterand, as they were looking out of the window at the Palatine landscape with the interpreter. The photo was very difficult to enlarge, but it was a subject that all the other photographers did not have.
ifa: The image of Helmut Kohl on the occasion of his 65th birthday is also unique, an intimate snapshot of his power.
Klemm: When I received this commission, I knew I wanted to show the Chancellor with his closest staff members at work. Politicians can always be better photographed in action. I brought him two pictures: one from the beginning of his career, the congratulations from Helmut Schmidt after the vote of no confidence, and one from the climax, 3rd October 1990 on the balustrade before the Reichstag with Oskar Lafontaine, Willy Brandt, Hannelore Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Richard von Weizsäcker and Lothar de Maizière. Then he asked me how I would want to do it. I had hoped for that question.
ifa: And how did you want to do it?
Klemm: I asked him to work away, as if I were not there. So I could observe and take pictures from the background. When he said after half an hour "That’s enough," I pretended I had not heard and carried on. I would not have dared to do that earlier in my career, but he let me. This is what it means, to withdraw and observe. It is always a great effort. At that time I was so exhausted, as if I had been shovelling coal.
ifa: Would writing have been the easier alternative for you?
Klemm: Writing is a very high art. Copywriters have it much harder than photographers. I have always admired editors for the way in which they summed up the stories we had experienced together with words. We photographers have the pressure at the moment of the event, in which we have to capture the situation in its complexity. If this does not work, there is nothing to be done – either the image is on the negative, sharp and well exposed – or not. This pressure is incredible. Editors, on the other hand, can search, retrieve or read information again before writing the article.
ifa: Would you have considered to visit war zones?
Klemm: No, I have always been too scared to do that. This must be done by people who are trained, consciously involved and feel an inner urge to do so. I did not want to visit war zones, just to make a sensational picture or to become famous. Even if you are very experienced and careful, you can get hurt. I even said that to Anja Niedringhaus * at our last meeting, four weeks before she was shot. I was like a big sister to her. We were close to each other.
ifa: What advice would you give young photographers today?
Klemm: If you are gifted, want the profession and are hardworking, you can still be successful with photography today. There are many educational paths and opportunities, from architecture to fashion, from art to journalism. But it is difficult to find your niche. And it has become extremely difficult to create something stable in the mass of digital photos. Also, the professional possibilities are extremely difficult with the large number of photographers and the ever worsening payment.
ifa: Your niche is analogue black-and-white photography. How do you feel about digital photography?
Klemm: It's too perfect for my taste. Today, one cannot be sure whether things really took place as they are shown in pictures. You can manipulate a lot of details, which fortunately good editors do not allow.
ifa: So do you still photograph black-and-white and analogue today?
Klemm: Yes, and I'll stick with it. I would not even work with a digital Leica camera. Leica generously wanted to gift me one on the occasion of the Leica Hall of Fame Award 2012. Then I said, "If this is the condition, I cannot accept the prize." That was a nice attempt to seduce me into digital photography, but I was then able to choose a new analogue camera.
ifa: Ms Klemm, thank you for the interview.
© ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) 2016
The German journalist was killed in an attack in Afghanistan in April 2014.