Who are some female street photographers
Photographer Helga Paris about East Berlin : “What delicate creatures! What a love! "
Helga receives Paris for a chat in her apartment on Winsstrasse, where she has lived for 53 years. “Leave your coat on, it's cool,” says the petite woman, before asking to sit at the large table in the living room with an appointment book on it. She wears a plaid wool skirt and cardigan, pearl earrings, and her hair is pinned up. Photographs lean everywhere in the room, some wrapped in bubble wrap, and illustrated books are stacked on a large chest of drawers.
Paris points to a red book with a small mirror on the cover; it is a recently published collection of photographs in which reflections play a role. Including some of her, a horse in Transylvania that is reflected in a puddle, her self-portraits in the bathroom. Paris collects buttons in a green box, objects that have always fascinated her, she says, and which she also photographed on a trip to New York.
Helga Paris was often referred to as the chronicler of everyday life in the GDR. For her pictures of neighbors, garbage collectors and residents of old people's homes, she did not have to descend into any social milieu.
“They need more light,” Paris says to her visitor and explains how the lamp overcomes its loose contact. One room further, in the narrow girls' room, she once had her darkroom. The hours there, says the autodidact, just passed by. Later, when her son and daughter, who became a photographer and goldsmith, moved out, she set up a larger laboratory in what was once a children's room.
When Paris talks about her life, her bright eyes look curiously at you. She's Berlin, but only a little. And sometimes, when she listens to the punch line of one of her brief answers, a high-pitched laugh gushes out of her, again and again.
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Ms. Paris, with your portraits of workers and pub guests you have become one of the most famous photographers in the GDR. There is great trust in the eyes of the people. How did you do that?
I had a trick in the bars. I was there mostly in the afternoon. I wasn't about alcohol, about drunks. The pubs, “Aunt Olga” in Linienstraße or “Mother Green”, were always full, there was an early shift, a midday shift, and a night shift. A large beer cost 51 pfennigs, there was murmuring everywhere, new shoes were examined, dogs were petted. First I asked the landlord if I could take photos, then I sat down at the regulars' table, put the camera on the table and talked. At some point people said: Well, don't you want to take a picture? Because I was sitting at the regulars table, that was okay for everyone in the restaurant.
You have a talent for making yourself invisible.
I've waited until the first wave of attention subsides. Then I could walk around freely and calmly. Everything about me coincided with this calm. People get tired of looking too. And then you have to talk again. Or doze off. Once I took a picture of an old woman who was so wonderful, she looked through the camera, completely in her mind.
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Her friend, the poet Elke Erb, once called the heavily smoky pubs in East Berlin "pre-graves in which the hopeless drank themselves to death".
She was very wrong about that. When we moved into the apartment on Winsstrasse in 1966, where I still live, as the first female artist in a proletarian neighborhood, a butcher, a garbage collector and their four children lived above us. The man first taught us how to behave in pubs. If you say "I want a beer, please", you never get one.
Why can people even be photographed?
Everyone needs to be recognized. Children say, "Look how I look." It's inside of us. Even so, I was almost ashamed at times. That I speak to people and that they open up. Just because I ask them to. And they don't even know what will happen to the picture afterwards. Actually, I'm stealing something from them.
Even though you agree with the picture?
You have no idea what I'm getting from them. Often times they wanted me to send them a photo. I honestly said: I don't want to promise you that. I take so many photos, not all of them turn out. I can't possibly write down all the addresses. They understood that too.
Do you develop a bond with these people?
Not at that moment, but when I have enlarged the photos at home in my darkroom it creates such a strong bond - I would recognize anyone! They are in me. I live with a huge family.
You have decided against expensive equipment.
Still shots, flash, that would have been too cumbersome for me. I spoke to people on the street, the background had to be right, I didn't have time to walk anywhere with them, I could just turn them around a bit. And then I had to make it clear that I was taking photos for an exhibition and not for any party organ. So I got this brief moment when people don't control themselves, don't look like they do in front of the mirror, whether a hair can go away, whether they are beautiful, whether they are good like that. Where they are completely with themselves. Then I took three or four pictures.
- The photographer
Helga Paris was born into a working-class family in 1938 in Gollnow, then Pomerania, today Goleniów. As a six-year-old she fled to Zossen with her mother and sister. The father, typesetter and staunch communist, does not come back from the war. Zossen becomes her “home experience”, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Paris returned to this place to photograph the series “Memories of Z” on the occasion of the withdrawal of the Soviet army.
Paris studied fashion design, worked briefly on the student theater b.a.t. founded by Wolf Biermann. and photographed numerous theater and opera productions in the 1970s. From 1972 she was a member of the Association of Visual Artists of the GDR, until 1975 she was married to the painter Ronald Paris. Her photography took her to Halle, Rome and Moscow, her pictures were exhibited all over the world. From November 8th to January 12th, 2020, the Akademie der Künste will present 275 of its works at Pariser Platz, including some single images and series shown for the first time.
In the beginning you took photos with the Czech “Flexarett”, a Rolleiflex camera in 6 x 6 format. Didn't you want western technology?
Later the Praktica was enough for me, it was a popular 35mm camera in the East. Later I had the Nikon. I didn't see any difference. Oh, let's not do that, I'm not a technology freak.
Are you only interested in people?
Yes, I'm mostly interested in people, and I don't look which car is passing by and I don't look at the breed of dog. I look at the dog owner.
You always took photos in black and white. Why?
Our world is colorful. Black and white is therefore much more memorable, not natural and therefore already art. And the composition can be seen more clearly. Composition can be practiced, that's how I taught students: take a black cardboard with a hole in the shape of a negative, walk around the world and say: now. Click. Click. Click. Get a moment out of the movement in which the composition is right.
You taught yourself to take photos. You actually studied fashion design.
That quickly became boring because in the GDR there was only ready-made fashion. As a kid, I loved my aunts' amateur photos that they kept in shoeboxes. I could sort them out for hours. I later photographed my daughter Jenny and my son Robert. When a friend of my husband's, the documentary filmmaker Peter Voigt, saw the pictures, he said: “The picture is good. Do some photography! ”So it came about.
You have avoided illustrated books by photographers like August Sander or William Klein, with whom you have already been compared.
Because I'm self-taught. I had to look for my topic first. The photos of good photographers would have captured my imagination. My divorced husband is a painter - I learned a lot about art there, and that influenced me. For example Francis Bacon. Incidentally, he also painted from photos. And I saw the early Italian neorealist films as a child, Vittorio De Sica as an actor. Sergej Eisenstein too. The social was so wonderful, the direct.
For the kindergarten place I had a job in the large photo laboratory for a while.
From the everyday life of an artistic loner in the GDR
Have you been a loner in your job?
I didn't join any group, I was missing the whole theory, and I wasn't particularly interested in whether you were using that or the headlight ... But I knew everyone. At the beginning of the 80s we met regularly in the Association of Visual Artists. Sibylle Bergemann, Ute Mahler, Werner Mahler took great photos of fashion back then and also worked as a journalist.
There was no market in the GDR for your kind of pictures. How did you make ends meet?
Sometimes more, sometimes less good. But life was so cheap, the apartment cost 75 marks. I earned my living with reproductions of art, photos of sculptures, portraits for catalogs, with record sleeves, still lifes. And for a time in kindergarten, I got a job in DEWAG's large photo laboratory. That's when I learned that you roll large photos so that the developer fluid gets everywhere.
Laboratory during the day, single mother in the afternoon, darkroom in the evening. You must have been tired.
It was exhausting, but at that age you are strong, and for a passion anyway. It was not easy for the children to understand: the mother is there, but they are not allowed to open the door.
You came across your next topic through your children in the early 80s: punks.
For the first time I saw them as a group at a festival in the Elisabeth Church. With the hairstyles and the rivets, they seemed brutal to me, I was really scared of them. But my daughter and son quickly had blue or red hair too, and the friends came to our home. When I saw them individually, I thought: What delicate creatures! So what dear! I photographed them in our apartment or in the stairwell and only later discovered that Almö, whom I had portrayed in my hallway, was holding his hand under his cigarette. So that the ashes don't fall on my carpet. I found that so touching.
In the GDR, punks were considered "anti-social", some of those portrayed received prison sentences.
Yes - my son got half a year because he sprayed on a wall: “20 years of the Wall, we're slowly getting angry”.
Did that increase your affection for the punks?
No. But my rejection of the government.
Was your work critical of the system?
The effect may have been that way, but not the intention. Well Of course, with the photos from retirement homes, for example, I put a little pressure on those responsible. When the journalists streamed eastwards in 1989, I thought: Nice, I don't have to photograph the decay here for the rest of my life. I can finally devote myself to other topics.
An exhibition that you had organized with pictures from the industrial city of Halle was banned shortly beforehand and the catalog was crushed.
I only took photos of what I saw. If I wanted to be subversive, I could have made much worse pictures. But the party wanted to build a new hall, prefabricated buildings for the workers. Many of the houses were listed, and the government sent people in to destroy the roofs, it rains in, and everything becomes dilapidated. Seeing that as a random photo must have frightened her so much that she immediately banned everything. It was bad, because the printers had done an excellent job, because they were glad that Halle was once photographed like this.
Her talent for seducing people to trust did not work in Halle.
They were repellent to aggressive. Once an old man came up to me with a raised stick because he happened to be on a street scene. Another time, quite by chance, a drunk turned the corner when I was pointing the camera in that direction. He was outraged and wanted to call the police and I had to show him my ID. When he had calmed down, I asked if I could take a picture of him now, and he acted like Napoleon. From then on I didn't take any photos without asking beforehand. The Halle residents were sensitive, they didn't want to be caught tired and dragging their bags. In the end, none of those approached refused a portrait.
In 1945, at the age of six, you fled with your mother and sister from Pomerania to Zossen, your mother's homeland. There you grew up among women. Do you think of women with an even more tender look than men?
I understand women better. You are close to me. In the 70s and 80s I often watched the women in the department store, they came tired from the shift system and still had to run errands there. The family waited at home, and then again there was no such thing or that. You were under an incredible amount of pressure. And then they waited in long lines at the cash register, there was nothing more to do, only to pay. They came to rest. You became beautiful. I called it "the buried face".
Is that what you wanted to depict?
Yes, but that was impossible in the department store. Then I remembered the nearby dress-and-coats factory Treff, where I was once an intern. I could surely find her there again. First I sewed a little and looked: mountains of cloaks and how the hands work on the assembly line, incredibly good pictures. Until it occurred to me that I wanted to portray women. This is how the series came about.
I was terrified of New York, believed that there were people lying in the gutter everywhere.
Helga Paris on her first trip to the USA in 1989
In 1989 you were allowed to travel to Canada to visit your sister. A privilege?
At a certain point in time, people were allowed to visit their first-degree relatives in West Berlin and the Federal Republic. The police refused my application for Canada. I asked why? My neighbor was even allowed to go to America. I said: "I have to explain to my children why she is allowed to and I am not." He was visibly embarrassed, said in a tight voice: "Well, go ahead then" and gave me the passport.
You stopped in New York on the way there.
Completely unprepared. I was supposed to pick up the keys to a friend's apartment from the neighbor. But she didn't hear the doorbell, and I was all alone down on 70th Street with my poor English. I was terrified of New York, believed that there were people lying in the gutter everywhere. The GDR's image of the enemy. An elderly gentleman came by and spoke to me, Germans recognize each other, and he also knew the neighbor. Pearl Snyder, a woman with 14 cats. He went to his apartment and called her.
What did you photograph in America?
There was already misery. But I did not want to hold my camera in the emergency as well. Don't confirm what I know. I photographed what I never thought New York could be like that: open and friendly. Like the bus driver late at night whom I asked for directions and who waited until I was safely at the front door. But I was also reckless. My son asked for a photo of the entrance to the Chrysler Building, so he only knew the tip. On a quiet Sunday I got into a conversation with the security guard, he drove me upstairs. There was an abandoned office, an empty kitchen behind sloping windows, an orphaned restaurant. Incredibly beautiful! I couldn't tell anyone that I was up there all alone as a woman. My mother had just died and I could really feel her holding her hands over me. As my guardian angel.
You took photos in Transylvania, Georgia and Poland, portrayed groups of men at the Termini train station in Rome in the mid-1990s, a new housing estate in Hellersdorf in the late 1990s and people on Alexanderplatz in 2002. Why don't you take photos anymore?
I don't feel the excitement anymore. In me it is calm and balanced. You should stop there.
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Today photos are everywhere. Did that make your job more difficult?
Yes, because people are more aware of their pictures. It takes a lot of effort to find a really good one out of photo inflation. But the person himself and his mood have of course not changed.Worry, joy, despondency - that has remained.
For years you have photographed yourself in the bathroom mirror in the evening. Always the same section. Basically early selfies. Do you find the word offensive?
Nope. It's just English.
A large exhibition of yours will open these days at the Academy of Arts, Germany is celebrating 30 years of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Are you touched by the date?
I do not care. When I was in America and people kept saying "behind the iron curtain," I first realized that we were living in the center of world history. But I will not mourn the East! The world has changed. I now have a walker that I probably wouldn't have gotten earlier.
Many speak of the lack of togetherness today, money was less important in the GDR - even if it was forced to do so.
That doesn't make up for the disadvantages. Because there is so much on offer today, you might want to buy more. But I go through the department store and say: I don't need that, I don't need that, I don't need any of it. It depends on you.
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