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Robert Lebeck: Photographs 1955-2005 on View at Martin Gropius Bau
Elvis Presley in Friedberg, Hesse 1958 © Robert Lebeck.

BERLIN.- The Martin-Gropius-Bau is devoting a major exhibition to the work of the German photo reporter Robert Lebeck, who photographed for Revue, Kristall and Stern and was editor-in-chief of GEO magazine. He achieved fame with his feature Africa in the Year Zero (1960). The photo of a young African snatching King Baudouin’s sword during the Congo’s independence celebrations went round the world and still ranks as his “calling card” today.

Robert Lebeck was born in 1929, making him one of the generation who went to war young. In 1944 he was called up for service in the Wehrmacht and was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was taken prisoner in 1945. The fear of death but also the strength of his will to survive were things he discovered as a fifteen-year-old on the Oder river. behind a machine gun facing oncoming Soviet tanks.

He escaped death but not the collapse of his world and the dissolution of any kind of order. This can be seen in his pictures: in the gentle grief that marks many of his photographs, in the scepticism with which he regards all façades, in the inner distance he maintains from the people while showing them so clearly from close up.

In 1952, four months after he began work as a photographer, the first Lebeck photograph appeared on the front page of a newspaper. It was a picture of Konrad Adenauer in the Heidelberg Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung. Lebeck was 23 years old. He photographed weddings, football, carnivals, children, whores, lord mayors, jazz clubs, students and cripples. The subjects were numerous.

The idea that a picture should have an inner “integrity” was always the guiding principle of Lebeck’s work and the reason for his success. The breakthrough to fame came a few years later, in 1960, when he made a three-month tour of Africa for the Hamburg magazine Kristall. At last he would follow in the footsteps of those jungle explorers whose exploits had thrilled him as a boy. The reality turned out to be different. Africa was a political witch’s cauldron. It was the year in which the European powers were granting independence to their former colonies. In Leopoldville the world press gathered to cover the independence celebrations in the Belgian Congo, the largest country in Black Africa. Standing in an open car, King Baudouin was driven through the city. Suddenly a black youth seized his sword from him and ran off brandishing the captured weapon in triumph. Lebeck had shot the picture of the year. A symbol of the decline of the power of the white man and of the bloody chaos into which the Congo was soon to sink.

“Without luck you can never get anywhere,” was Lebeck’s comment on this, and indeed his reporter’s luck held up in a way that was almost uncanny. But was it only luck? He knows it wasn’t. His is a profession, an art, that requires a specific alertness, one that has nothing to do with the frantic celebrity-stalking Paparazzo caricatured so unmercifully by Fellini in La Dolce Vita. The alertness of the good reporter is of a discreet, unobtrusive kind. The “decisive moment” never lasts longer than a fraction of a second. Photography, including journalistic photography, can be dramatic, brutal, obscene, sentimental. Lebeck’s photography is none of these things, possessing as it does an irritating sobriety. His pictures always betray their creator’s way of looking at the world with the incisive eye of a surgeon. Many may see this as coldness, and it is true that his unemotional way of looking at people and things can sometimes be provocative. But it is precisely this air of cool detachment, the inner distance to the object and to what is happening, that gives Lebeck’s work the effect it has. He is not in the business of providing answers, merely allowing the picture to ask the question, which is why so many of these pictures become etched in the memory.

Apart from a few exceptions, the phenomenon generally known as “sensationalism” is absent from Lebeck’s work. He leaves that to others. All his work is pervaded by a sense of tongue-in-cheek irony, the attitude of a man who has seen through what is going on and finds it charming for this very reason. “Just go easy on the histrionics,” he seems to be thinking, even while he photographs these very histrionics.

This is the most extensive presentation of pictures by Robert Lebeck to date. Also on view are printed features giving a broad overview of the world of post-war periodicals. On the occasion of his 80th birthday (on 21 March 2009) 300 photographs – some familiar and some hitherto unknown – will recall the active years (1955-2005) of the former Stern reporter, who in 2007 was the first photographer to receive the Henri-Nannen Prize for his life’s work.

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