Karl Gernot Kuehn: ‘Caught. The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic’

Karl Gernot Kuehn: Caught. The Art of Photography in the German Democratic Republic, University of California Press, 1997.

The title of this extensive documentation of 45 years of GDR-photography by Karl Gernot Kuehn (Caught) already refers to the two principal intentions of this book: to present a detailed analysis of how political pressure and constraint shaped photography (and photographers) in the former GDR, how they “caught” the artists in the act, but also to document what it was that these artists themselves “caught” with their camera, once again with special emphasis on the relationship between photography and its ideological context.

In 45 chronologically arranged chapters, the author follows the development of photography in the GDR, from the its very beginning (the period of “socialist formation”) to the collapse of the regime, a time that was characterized by an increasingly individualistic artistic attitude. Kuehn gives a precise and detailed description of the affirmative, positive attitude of most artists towards the newly founded state after its initial inception, and she explains how this attitude gradually changed into despair and schizophrenia as the system became more and more monolithic and incalculable.

By contrasting social developments with artistic events and by situating both in their historical context, Kuehn manages to deliver vividly intense portraits of the works and biographies of important photographers from the former GDR. He documents painstakingly the artists transition from the principles of Socialist Realism to more pedestrian, resigned “real socialism” (realer Sozialismus) and, finally, their retreat into private life, a transition that was in many ways tantamount to a transition from collectivism to individualism.

At times, however, Kuehn himself seems to be, perhaps understandably, “caught” in his own rather partial approach, an approach that consists essentially in an effort to measure the quality of an artistic work by applying the yardstick of its deviation from political doctrine. For example, with regard to the first formative years of the GDR, Kuehn limits his coverage to a few summary remarks and rather sketchy portraits. According to Kuehn, this was simply the time when “photographers learned to fill quotas like factory workers but […] forgot how to think”, when they consequently “fell into a long deep sleep.”

Kuehn might have avoided certain trivial and somewhat excessive commentaries on admittedly important political and social events (such as the building of the Berlin Wall), especially in view of the fact that he does not in return offer sufficient coverage for crucially important concepts such as the so-called Bitterfeld Path. A turning point in the development of official art in the GDR, the 1959 Bitterfeld Path decreed that workers and artists “exchange their tools.” In addition, especially in those chapters dealing with photography during the early years of the GDR, more illustrations might have deepened our understanding of the developments described in the book.

Nevertheless Kuehns subtle analyses of works lsuch as “On the Linotype” by Evelyn Richter are no doubt successful. In this instance, Kuehn is right to identify the first frictions in the “typical” photographic representations of industrial workers already in the early 1960s. Another example of a successful analysis is his excellent description of the photographs by Arno Fischer, Richter’s colleague and male counterpart at the renowned Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig.

It is in his documentation of the situation of photography during the 1970s and 80s, the “time of the awakening”, that Kuehn truly comes into his own. The chapter entitled “milestones,” for example, affords compelling insights into the artistic life of those years, into contemporary curatorial thinking and into the activities of critical gallerists. The work done by photographers such as Wolfgang Gregor, Karin Wieckhorst and Renate Zeun gives evidence of the increasing individualisation of the social theme and the formation of an “antihero” in East German photography. During the 1980s, what comes to the fore are formerly repressed themes such as feminism, the conflicts between the generations, the necessity tocome to terms with the Nazi past, as well as more private topics such as illness and death. Kuehn finishes his well-researched book with a short review of the present activities of important GDR photographers. In this context, it is somewhat ironic that the past did indeed “catch up” with some of them after their cooperation with the security services of the former GDR was revealed.