What do we think of when we conjure images of Eastern Germany during the last decade of the GDR, when Germany was at its most divided? Perhaps the famous photograph of an escapee leaping over barbed wire comes to mind; or homogenised cars and fashions, grim social housing, factory workers…
'Looking through my archive pictures from the time, I’ve realised that we remember life, well... not really as it was,' says Rudi Meisel, one of Germany’s leading documentary and architectural photographers. An exhibition of his work at Berlin’s major photography gallery, C/O, seeks to change perceptions of life and style in East and West.
Titled ‘Compatriots 1977–87: Two Germanys’, the show plays with viewers’ expectations of architecture, fashion and lifestyle in the communist East and capitalist West during the decade when tensions between the two sides of the Iron Curtain were highest. 'I wanted to show not the rich side on the West and the poor side on the East,' Meisel explains. 'I wanted to disturb this opinion. It’s become a pervasive habit and remains so even now, not just here but all over the world.'
Meisel’s photographs tell complex stories of life in the West, where he was from, often with an eye on socialistic art, German architecture and behaviour, along with touching scenes from poor areas and factory towns. In the East, meanwhile, he often encountered a strong sense of style and bustling, easy-going public spaces.
'I loved the East,' he says of his time travelling around East Germany for Zeit magazine. 'Immediately I wanted to tell [in the photos] that it is not only barbed wire and prison. I loved the people. Everyday life was like in the West. It was relaxing. People could laugh, they had their own freedom.'
Few professional images like Meisel’s remain from the East. Taking photographs in public was considerably harder in the GDR than in the West. Meisel had to know weeks – even months – in advance what he wanted to see and when, and he always had a party official by his side.
Meisel’s pictures are subtle and take time to unravel. His idea is that fashions, buildings and people should never be arranged together in obvious ways – they should leave room for complexity and doubt. 'Photography is always a projection,' he says. 'Photographs can be a mistake, tell the wrong story. You know those novels that begin with the notice, "If any of the events in this story resemble reality, it’s not intended"? That notice should accompany all my work.'