Ute Mahler interviewed by Rory MacLean
‘Photography was very important, very influential in the former GDR,’ Ute Mahler told me in the Berlin office of Ostkreuz, today Germany’s most successful photographers’ agency. ‘Photographic exhibitions were very popular, and people came because they could read the truth in a photographer’s images. Only few of those in power were able to do that. And if some official found something, we could argue: “I don’t understand, this image only shows this and that.” In those days everyone worked between the lines.’
Ute Mahler was born in Thuringia in 1949. Her father was the village’s master miller, and an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He snapped candid portraits of family, friends, village weddings and festivals, rarely making prints, filing away the negatives in old books. To supplement his income he began to photograph agricultural machinery for a local factory. The work was profitable and, in a huge leap of faith, he moved his family to Lehnitz. In East Berlin he reinvented himself as an ad photographer, taking glossy, staged, official pictures of combine harvesters, party officials and one hundred orchestral directors.
‘My father became very successful,’ said Mahler. ‘He always told me, “Ute, you are a photographer.” I kept rejecting the suggestion. I knew that I could on no account be an official photographer like him. I wanted to catch reality, to tell the truth. But I didn’t know about his secret, private work.’
In 1974 Mahler graduated from Leipzig’s Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst and began a career as a freelancer. She earned her living as a fashion photographer, working often for Sibylle, a hugely popular magazine published every other month which sold out its 200,000 copies within days. Strict censorship impacted on her work, for example on a fashion shoot when she photographed the model encaged by wire mesh on a construction site. The magazine’s editor refused to run the portrait and, when Mahler queried his decision, he told her simply, ‘You know why. And I know why.’
At the same time Mahler pursued her own personal work, capturing moving, poignant moments of ordinary life, of ‘living together’, aware that the images might never be published.
‘It was easier to take photographs in those days,’ she explained with humility. ‘People were much more trusting of the nature of photography. It was also easier because we had something to fight against. All I did was always have my camera ready, and wait wait wait.’
With her grey eyes sparkling, Mahler leafed through Ostzeit: Stories from a Vanished Country, published by Ostkreuz and Hatje Cantz Verlag. Among its remarkable, unadorned images – taken over a period of 30 years by Ute Mahler, her husband Werner Mahler and colleagues Sibylle Bergemann, Harald Hauswald and Maurice Weiss – is a 1973 picture of a young couple on their wedding day in an attic bedroom adorned with Western products: empty washing powder packages, hand creams, stockings and cigarette packets.
‘For me this picture is tragic,’ Mahler sighed. ‘It’s the Golden Calf - this adoration of consumerism, an altar to Western materialism.’
As Mahler’s reputation grew she was permitted to photograph the East Berlin 1980 May Day Parade, standing under the podium for five hours, capturing revealing portraits of the Politburo, STASI members and the general public. Once again she understood that her most honest images would never be exhibited.
‘By the middle of the 1980s I felt that I was in a barrel, going around and around, doing nothing new. Professionally I’d achieved everything that I could by that point, without compromising myself. In East Germany in those days individuals could hardly develop themselves. The government dictated what we could read, what we could see, what we could listen to. Everything was so ugly, mediocre, banal.’
After the fall of the Wall, Mahler and six other top East German photographers founded Ostkreuz, named after a Berlin S-Bahn station. Their agency was modelled on Magnum, the international photographic cooperative owned by its photographer-members, who give 20% of their income to the collective and share its ownership and responsibilities.
‘In 1990 everything was changing. Everything was new. Everything. We founded Ostkreuz as a means of survival, as well as to bring together a group of like-minded individuals. In those early days we had no idea how to run an agency. We couldn’t even get a landline telephone. So in West Berlin we bought a Siemens “mobile” telephone for 7000 DM (around €5000 at today’s prices). That was a fortune, and the telephone was too valuable to leave in the office. It weighed more than five kilos. We took turns dragging it home at night. But it was the only way that we could be contacted.’
Over two decades Ostkreuz grew and developed into Germany’s most successful agency, despite resisting populism and the commercial demands of our time. Every five years the agency marks its evolution with a new book and an exhibition on the state of the nation, examining fundamental questions on the meaning of home, identity, old age and hope. This year’s milestone exhibition Deutschlandbilder – Images of Germany will be displayed at the Goethe-Institut London from 17 September to 15 December. Three years ago the group also launched the Ostkreuz School of Photography, to enable the founders’ passion and ethos to be passed on to a new generation.
‘We saw – and see – ourselves as documentary photographers, with a subjective approach. I acknowledge the inherent contradiction but we believe there is no objectivity. Each photographer has his or her own individual language and approach. Our work is never posed or constructed. We have no illusions.’
Today Ostkreuz’s 18 members range in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties.
‘I don’t know how many are from the east and how many are from the west,’ Mahler said with a laugh. ‘That doesn’t matter. What is important now is how we understand and conceive reality.’
Mahler’s latest work is in the collaborative book The City: Becoming and Decaying, a search for the essence of present-day urban realities. For their part, she and her husband travelled to four points of the European compass – Reykjavík, Liverpool, Minsk and Florence – to photograph Mona Lisa of the Suburbs, portraits of young women extracted for half-an-hour from their daily lives. The Mahlers’ approach made each woman ‘feel really special’ and resulted in a profoundly serene series.
Ute Mahler is a warm, passionate and patient artist, whose gifts, skill and determination have brought both professional and personal fulfilment and created a remarkable body of work. But perhaps one of the most moving moments of her life occurred after her father’s death with the discovery of his personal, unofficial photographs.
Hidden away in books, forgotten in the attic, were hundreds of photographic negatives. Published in 2003 in Ludwig Schirmer – Zu Hause, her father’s candid images of 1950s Thuringia bring to mind the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, August Sander and Diane Arbus.
‘My father was completely untrained but he had an unbelievable talent.’ Mahler said with pride, looking at the snapshots of a lost era. Then she shook her head. ‘Yet he did not value these honest, genuine images. He felt that his staged, advertising work was of far greater importance.’