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Exhibition at Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg surveys of the German photography scene around the year 1980
Wolfgang Schulz (*1944), Untitled, c. 1980. Gelatin silver paper, 24 x 30 cm. Private collection © Wolfgang Schulz.

HAMBURG.- As part of its exhibition series Reconsidering Photography, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg is undertaking a survey of the German photography scene around the year 1980. The springboard for the examination is the journal Fotografie. Zeitschrift internationaler Fotokunst, published by Wolfgang Schulz (b. 1944) between 1977 and 1985. On the occasion of the exhibition, MKG is inviting photography experts Reinhard Matz (Cologne), Steffen Siegel (Folkwang University Essen), and Bernd Stiegler (University of Konstanz) to relate their research project on the 1980s to the historical photographs in the MKG collection. The aim of the collaboration is to create a historical archaeology of German photography around 1980 based on the example of the journal Fotografie and its protagonists. The exhibition will show some 150 photos by Wolfgang Schulz, Hans Christian Adam, Dörte Eißfeldt, Verena von Gagern, André Gelpke, Dagmar Hartig, Andreas Horlitz, Reinhard Matz, Angela Neuke, Heinrich Riebesehl, Wilhelm Schürmann, Holger Stumpf, Petra Wittmar, and Miron Zownir, together with the journal itself, accompanied by a series of interviews conducted with contemporary witnesses expressly for the exhibition.

Something remarkable happened in the field of photography between 1975 and 1985: important galleries were established and photography increasingly became a coveted item on the art market. Suddenly, collecting and exhibiting photographs in museums was no longer the exception. Photography really stepped into the limelight in style at the so-called Mediendocumenta in 1977. Basic academic reference books were published and a large number of journals were founded. These include both periodicals that since that time have dominated the scholarly discourse, such as History of Photography and Fotogeschichte, as well as magazines designed for the broader public with an interest in photography, including Camera Austria, European Photography, Volksfoto, and Fotokritik.

Among this second group was a journal that was published between 1977 and 1985 with a total of 40 issues, for which its editor, Wolfgang Schulz, who had studied physics and then taught himself photography, chose a name that was as concise as it was ambitious: Fotografie. Zeitschrift internationaler Fotokunst (later Fotografie: Kultur jetzt). Today, this journal seems to have been almost completely forgotten. And yet the achievements of the editor and the contributing authors and photographers surely deserve a closer look. The mix of images and texts they came up with is an important resource for exploring a photography scene that, around 1980, was working hard to establish the medium as an independent art form. At the same time, the 40 issues of Fotografie exude the charm of the open-ended and were shaped by the personal predilections of their editor. An in-depth study of the journal lets us return to the origins of recent photographic history in Germany, which today – surprisingly enough – seem largely to have been buried in the dust of the past.

The exhibition is divided into four sections. It pays tribute to the photographic work of Wolfgang Schulz from the period around 1980, presents works by photographers that for the most part found their way into the MKG collection during that era, displays all 40 issues of the journal Fotografie (unfurling an impressive creative panorama), and lets contemporary witnesses have their say in video interviews as a kind of “oral history.”

Wolfgang Schulz was not merely one of the first journal editors to set himself the task of presenting “a complete overview of contemporary photography with a focus on German photography” but also a notable photographer in his own right. In his photography, as in his editorial work, Schulz tried to evade established norms, while also trying his hand at different styles and subjects. In his Ireland pictures, for example, he followed the narrative tradition of pictorial reportage but simultaneously created a strictly documentary-seeming typology of barns and their various manifestations. With a series of shots of undergrowth, he turned his attention to the unspectacular, and he also portrayed the protagonists on the photography scene who crossed his threshold. For the first time ever, the exhibition is showing his photographic works from the period around 1980.

The images in the MKG collection give an idea of the broad scope covered by art photography in the 1980s. The selection is based on the photo spreads published in Fotografie and thus undoubtedly reveals the preferences of its editor, who seems to have been interested neither in the circle around Bernd and Hilla Becher nor in Michael Schmidt, and who deliberately set out to provoke his readers. Heinrich Riebesehl (1938–2010) explored the North German landscape in his documentary series Agrarlandschaften (Agricultural Landscapes). In a similarly factual style, Wilhelm Schürmann (b. 1946) devoted himself to a highly subjective theme: his childhood surroundings on Steinhammerstrasse in Dortmund. These images are supplemented by his photographs of urban landscapes and residential architecture. Riebesehl and Schürmann both sought their motifs in the realities of life in West Germany that confronted them everywhere they looked. André Gelpke (b. 1947) for his part explored Hamburg’s St. Pauli entertainment district for an independent series he called Sex Theater. He conveys here his view of erotic theatre as a mirror of society that tellingly reveals the audience’s double standards. Wolfgang Schulz also printed Miron Zownir’s pictures of New York’s underground SM, queer, and transsexual scene. These photo spreads reflect the editor’s interest in non-establishment subcultures and in people living on the margins of society.

The photography scene around 1980 was predominantly male: of 147 portfolios published in Fotografie, only 24 presented female photographers. One of the privileged few, Dörte Eißfeldt (b. 1950), combined in her work Große Liebe (True Love, 1980) photographic montage techniques with the serial principle, creating in the darkroom photograms with motifs from her own daily life. Her approach might be dubbed “poetic photography,” the term used by photographer Verena von Gagern (b. 1946) to describe the “representation of private realities.” Von Gagern made pictures in the late 1970s within the “emotional realm” of her own family, among them the image Barbara (1978). Petra Wittmar (b. 1955) pursued by contrast a stricter documentary concept. In her series Spielplätze (Playgrounds, 1979), she takes a critical look at the dreary world of the modern metropolis.

Featured photographers: Wolfgang Schulz, Hans Christian Adam, Dörte Eißfeldt, Verena von Gagern, André Gelpke, Dagmar Hartig, Andreas Horlitz, Reinhard Matz, Angela Neuke, Heinrich Riebesehl, Wilhelm Schürmann, Holger Stumpf, Petra Wittmar, and Miron Zownir

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