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Culture: Capturing essence of realism; Terry Grimley reviews photography from the former East Germany and Birmingham renaissance man Pogus Caesar at Wolverhampton Art Gallery.

Byline: Terry Grimley

Photography was accorded a lowly status among art forms in the German Democratic Republic, which paradoxically expanded its artistic possibilities.

While it was straightforward for the authorities to monitor painting and sculpture to ensure they conformed to state-prescribed norms of optimistic social realism, the more ambiguous realism of photography could be harder to pin down.

Nevertheless, many of the photographers featured in Do Not Refreeze, a survey of photography in East German circa 1950-1990 which is being toured by the University of Hertfordshire and has just opened at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, did suffer censorship.

One example is Helga Paris, whose Houses and Faces exhibition, documenting the dilapidation of the historic city of Halle, was cancelled before the images were printed. But here they are, offering glimpses of some halftimbered medieval buildings on their last legs, many of them with Trabant cars parked in front of them.

Trabants and more antique vehicles feature extensively in the exhibition, which includes many street scenes in Berlin and other cities.

Many of the buildings are either run-down or are newly-built in the approved Soviet totalitarian style.

Though some trees are glimpsed in older parts, there seems to have been an ideological embargo against planting new ones, helping to create a starkness which is shocking to British eyes (I once heard a planner remark that in this country we cover up bad design with landscaping, whereas elsewhere in Europe they cover it up with advertising).

It is immediately striking that most of the photographers are women, and that the images are exclusively in black-and-white.

Even Sibylle Bergemann, who was employed by the state and permitted to work abroad, was not tempted into colour when taking pictures in Paris or Hollywood.

In fact, coming across a image of an elegant house propped up at the back after a series showing dilapidated and war-damaged buildings in Berlin, it takes a moment to register that it is a Hollywood film set.

There is a strange feeling of displacement in the glimpses of everyday life in a closed and now vanished society. But there are also links with pre-war German visual art.

There are portraits of important artists like John Heartfield (by Arno Fischer), whose brilliant photomontages satirised the early days of National Socialism, and the painter Otto Dix (by the Leipzig photographer Evelyn Richter, also represented by a self-portrait in a mirror with members of the Gewandhaus Orchestra).

In the urban abstraction of Maria Sewcz's photographs - one, for example, juggles the corner of a building seen at an angle, two telephone wires and an aircraft flying over - recalls the pioneering documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a City.

And then, Gundula Schulze Eldowry's uncomfortable work has an edge which connects with 1920s New Realism painting as well as the possible influence of American photographer Diane Arbus (if her work was visible in the GDR) in its artless images of nude people, including one particularly inexplicable picture of a naked woman with a cigarette holder.

Eldowy attaches extended stories to two of her subjects, including an elderly woman she met in a park and ended up photographing for a decade from 1978 to 1987, eventually following her to hospital where she is shown, naked, with her right leg amputated.

She also photographed three leading GDR politicians at the 1984 May Day parade - not naked, but on a podium with a watchful Stassi agent at street level in the foreground.

Some of the most recent images are by Leipzig-based photographer Ersamus Schroeter, who is young enough to have begun his career in the GDR and to have gone on to become well-known across Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He is best known for his dramatic large-scale colour photographs of surviving Nazi bunkers, which he floods spectacularly with coloured light before photographing them - producing an effect which aesthetically is light years away from this exhibition.

In his early work he was the only one of these photographers to break out of the standard print formant to work on a larger scale, though he was still to make the switch to colour.

His most original photographs, however, are small-scale ones taken candidly with flash. The results are sometimes bizarre and inexplicable - not least in the one which is accurately described by its title: A Llama is Guided into a Ballroom.

Do Not Refreeze is a beautifully mounted exhibition and makes the best use I have seen so far of Wolverhampton's triangular temporary exhibition gallery.

A short step across the corridor from it is That Beautiful Thing, a retrospective exhibition of photographs by Birmingham polymath Pogus Caesar - who has been a graphic artist, TV presenter, film-maker and general cultural animateur as well as photographer over the last 30 years.

Pogus likes to work in black-and-white, using simple instamatic cameras of the kind displayed in the exhibition for maximum flexibility. He has collected these images in the course of extensive travels over the years and here they are presented in a deliberately jumbled-up sequence in a tight, two-level hang. For example, one horizontal sequence has photographs of two shoe-shine boys in Caracas, Venezuela, and a couple kissing on the shore of Lake Como flanking a close-up of a glue-sniffer on a No 50 bus in Moseley. You do wonder how he came to take that one.

Other subjects range from the 1985 Handsworth riots to Soweto, Desmond Tutu at Nelson Mandela School in Sparkbrook and a barbershop group performing in Bristol.

It's a very mixed bag, but the pleasant surprise is how cohesive the exhibition seems, a kind of loose rhythm seeming to unify these deceptively casual photographs.

There is nothing casual, though, about the large portraits which anchor the exhibition at its four corners, including a striking one of dub legend Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Do Not Refreeze: Photography Behind the Berlin Wall is on view until June 21; Pogus Caesar: That Beautiful Thing until July 12 at Wolverhampton Art Gallery, Lichfield Street (Mon-Sat 10am-5pm; admission free).

CAPTION(S):

A Llama is Guided into a Ballroom, by Erasmus Schroeter; Left: Tattooed Arms, by Pogus Caesar and Houses and Faces, by Helga Paris; Kirsten Hoppenrade, by Sibylle Bergemann; Houses and Faces, by Helga Paris
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:May 20, 2008
Words:1034
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