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Thursday, 27 February 2014

An East German Photobook Adventure: Tractors, Photofits and Textiles

I visited Rudi Thoemmes in Bristol yesterday. Rudi is organising the Bristol Photobook Festival that is happening in June. He also runs a photobook dealership RRB Photobooks and has a massive collection of books from the DDR, East Germany.

These are books that are virtually unknown outside Germany. They reveal a history that connects to the unified Germany of the Second World War and before, as well as to the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall. So they are not just photographic documents, they also reflect ideas, ideologies and world events - sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. They also reflect a sensibility that runs counter to what we take for granted, a sensibility that can be authoritarian, utilitarian and brutally direct.

The books fell into several distinct categories. One group consisted of anniversary books, books that celebrated 20years of the existence of the DDR, or (below) the 4 year anniversary of the foundation of Greater Berlin Municipal Authority.

There are albums; police albums (see the photofit picture above), army albums, school albums and factory albums. Boxed portfolio sets showed idealised housing estates or construction projects and there are fancy design additions such as this yellow acetate in this offering from the Dederon Textile Company.

 And fitting into this category are some of the best known East German photobooks that looked at the construction of Berlin's Stalin Strasse Apartment block, the coup in Chile or the conflict in the Congo.

Other offerings include travel photobooks (and these sold in huge numbers - 50,000 copies was common), photobooks celebrating international friendship. The picture below is from Addis Ababa and shows the locals being obliged to take their sunday off out to watch a DDR tractor display. What could be better than that in the noonday Ethiopian sun.

More tractors come in this children's book - it's a kind of Tractor Tom but even more animal friendly.

There were also more political books, such as Dirk Alvermann's books on West Germany and Algeria, the latter of which is especially notable (and is, along with the autobahn book, in the 1st Photobook History).

And then there are the worker's books. I particularly enjoyed the Postwomen book.

It's fascinating both for what it shows and what it doesn't show (there are no Stasi books for example), and for the scale of photographic culture that existed in the DDR, a scale that shows how deep-seated photographic culture can be, far deeper than the very narrow photographic culture that we generally talk or read about. And that's interesting! And worth examining.

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