A woman stands among a field of steel parts. A man sits between oversized, organically shaped cylindrical objects. Another works on an enormous steel wheel, while someone else appears like a tiny speck in the center of this immense wheel. In looking at these images, one is reminded more of the utopian scenes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis than what is actually being observed: the arduous, everyday life inside the factories of the GDR.
In casting machines in an almost cinematic light, Ludwig Schirmer has created enigmatic images. Who is the master of whom? Have the machines taken control of man?
The individuals standing alongside the constructions of metal, steel, and iron almost seem like mere accessories. In several images, the women and men look absent-minded or apathetic, in others they appear to be merging together with their work equipment. Nevertheless, the individuals are indispensable. The tension in the images is generated mainly by the relationship between man and machine. Schirmer also perfectly highlights this interplay with artificial lighting.
All of these photographs were taken between the 1960s and 1970s in a variety of companies in the GDR. The locations can no longer be reconstructed with certainty, but they range from heavy industry factories to the processing industry.
Ludwig Schirmer (1929–2001) worked in the GDR as a successful advertising photographer. He came to photography indirectly: as a trained master miller he taught himself photography. He went on to receive numerous commissions from major trade fairs, foreign trade companies, and industrial combines. Ostensibly, he had access to the otherwise non-public industries through his advertising work. In the GDR, the entire economic sector, including all industrial companies, was under state control. All means of production and products were state property. However, this is not really a factor in Schirmer’s images. He was primarily interested in the form and aesthetics of the machines and products. Only one detail gives away something about the actual world of work in the socialist state: the extraordinarily high proportion of women working in industry. In 1970 in the GDR this rate was 41%.
To a certain extent, Ludwig Schirmer’s black-and-white photographs recall social documentary photography. However, this was not his intention with these images. He was not interested in documenting the condition of the factories or in making workers’ portraits. Also, Schirmer was not a press photographer. The cinematic staging of the images bears witness to this. He was primarily interested in getting the best photograph possible.
In addition to staged factory shots, a small selection of portrait photographs can be seen. Here, man in his role as worker of either gender is the focus. Individuals are presented in their immediate work settings. Similar to August Sander’s early twentieth-century portraits of society, these are typological studies that reveal much more about social and political circumstances than the individual’s personality or characteristics.
The photographs of industrial factories presented in the exhibition were unknown for many years. His daughter Ute Mahler – also a photographer – discovered them only after his death. Along with countless other photographs, these images were found on 35mm negatives and large-format negatives, which Ute Mahler used to make new prints. The Galerie für moderne Fotografie has presented two previous exhibitions of Ludwig Schirmer’s works in the spaces of Central Gallery Berlin: Die Allee. Fotografien von Ute Mahler und Ludwig Schirmer, 2015 as well as Das Baukastensystem. Fotografien von Ludwig Schirmer, 2017.
Text: Cornelia Siebert
Jan 26 — March 17, 2018
Aino Laberenz, Amira Fritz, Atlanta Rascher, branimir, Camille Vivier, Frederike Helwig, Katja Rahlwes, Kristin Loschert, Lottermann and Fuentes, Simone Gilges, Ute Mahler
March 23 —
April 22 extended until May 26, 2018
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