The angel fell. Although: maybe he landed and liked it so much in Berlin that he shed his wings. Anyway, they are lying there now, in a crumbling backyard, captured by Sibylle Bergemann in 1994 in foggy black and white.
At first glance, the work does not appear to be typical of the artist, who is primarily known for fashion photography. In doing so, she combines a number of characteristics that have manifested themselves in Bergemann’s paintings over a period of four and a half decades. There is this precise, observing look, the black and white, the subliminal irony – and of course Berlin as the setting.
This brings us to two of the most important insights that can be found in the exhibition “Sibylle Bergemann – Stadt Land Hund. Photographs 1966-2010”: Bergemann was more versatile than one initially thinks. And: Despite all the diversity, clear continuities can be read in her work.
The exhibition in the Berlinische Galerie is perfect for a comprehensive retrospective. She brings together around 200 works, 30 of which are being shown for the first time. The increase can be explained by the photographer’s estate (1941-2010), managed by her daughter and granddaughter, Frieda and Lily von Wild, with whom the gallery worked closely. In a year and a half of preparation, 4,000 positives were viewed and almost 1,600 contact sheets were digitized.
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That sounds like a lot, but given Bergemann’s productivity, it’s only a start. According to an exhibition text, she exposed 2,000 films between 1966 and 1974 alone. The photographer prefers to develop the films herself, in a darkroom at home. In her apartment on Hannoversche Strasse, where she lived from 1967 to 1976 with her partner, the photographer Arno Fischer, and her daughter, the darkroom took up half of the kitchen.
The exhibition, which is accompanied by a podcast, focuses on Bergemann’s places of life: the apartments in the Hannoversche and on Schiffbauerdamm, but also the retreats in the surrounding area. Wherever the family is, other artists drop by to talk photography, drink, dance and dress up with Bergemann and Fischer. The exhibition also shows this.
In addition to these “backstage shots”, she traces the photographer’s career largely chronologically. Curator Katia Reich – head of the Photographic Collection since 2020, this is her first major show for the Berlinische Galerie – does not shy away from arranging the work thematically and at the same time incorporating cross-references to other creative periods.
Parallels emerge that show how Bergemann’s perspective changes with the subject. She switches to different modes, depending on whether she is photographing a fashion spread – strict, mostly central perspective order, meticulously directed -, taking portraits – a free, searching gaze, with a great deal of respect for those depicted – or as a reserved observer, capturing moments on the street.
Born in Berlin, she always let a resonating space resonate that pointed beyond what was merely depicted. She also succeeded in doing this in her commissioned work “The Monument” for the GDR Ministry of Culture: From 1975 to 1986 she accompanied the creation of the Marx-Engels monument, which was to be erected opposite the Palace of the Republic. Sculptor Ludwig Engelhardt made it on Usedom, Bergemann visited him again and again. Nine of the 22 works she ultimately chose for the work are on view at the Berlinische Galerie.
The photographer managed to carefully disenchant the staging of the socialist pillar saints without alienating the client. Wonderful, for example, how the lower bodies of Marx and Engels await completion in front of the monumental Baltic Sea sky.
It almost seems as if the figures would disappear into the clouds above them. In the GDR, she always navigated between autonomy and cooperation in order to maintain her subjective view, which she was able to show in magazines such as “Das Magazin”, “Sonntag” and “Sibylle”.
With her admission to the Association of Visual Artists in 1978, she was able to apply for trips to Western countries. In the Berlinische Galerie, evidence of stays in Paris and New York can be seen. Long after reunification, in 1999, she ended up in Yemen on behalf of “Geo”. The photographer returned from there changed. Inspired by the soft, slightly milky light of the Arabian Peninsula, she discovered color photography for herself.
When you enter the room in the Berlinische Galerie in which her late work is shown, you think for a moment that you have strayed into another exhibition. After all the black and white impressions, the colors of Yemen, Senegal, Mali and Ghana suddenly shine out at you from the walls.
Her clients now include magazines such as “Stern”, “Spiegel” and the magazine of the “New York Times”. But no matter how different her color works may appear: when Sibylle Bergemann photographs a black and white goat in Ghana in 2000 in front of a rosy house wall, it not only comes across as a tame echo of a guard dog, also spotted, which she photographed in Kazan in 1973. The photo also testifies to the still alert, precise view and sense of irony that made her one of the most important photographers in Germany.
Her legacy also lives on elsewhere in Berlin: not only in the Ostkreuz photo agency, which Bergemann co-founded in 1990, but also on Kaiserdamm, where the Kicken Gallery is currently showing another exhibition of the artist’s works. They can still be seen there until September 9th – as the fourth part of the “Sheroes of Photography” series.