Life’s not always ballerinas and little gnomes – sometimes it’s slaughterhouses and old man penises. That’s life though, and that’s what artist Gundula Schulze Eldowy documents in her exhibition The Early Years currently showing at C/O Berlin. Her other exhibition, Metamorphoses, is running concurrently at the Deutscher Bundestag.
Photographing everyday life through her Nikon FA, Eldowy has produced internationally iconic photos of the German, and specifically Berlin, milieu. Though it’s been over 20 years and she has long ago set aside her camera, Eldowy still eloquently recalls her feelings of Berlin and her work within the GDR.
Do you have a specific idea when you take photos or do you experiment?
I make conceptual photographs. I was interested in other things before, but life kind of forced me into photography. I don’t immediately photograph, I observe for a long time; sometimes I observed for 10 years. I haven’t photographed in a social documentary sense for a long time. What you’re asking about was over 20 years ago. It was a lot of fun, an adventure. It was also very dangerous though – once I began having exhibitions, the Stasi got suspicious that I was a CIA agent and wanted to arrest me.
The photos in The Early Years vary from joy on one side to the macabre, why such juxtaposition?
I just photographed life in a city. Scenes of dissipation; and this dissipation is like a hot/cold shower, people go from one room to another and are confronted with something different each time. It’s about the history of people whether it’s dance, or birth. That’s what interested me: people.
Some of these pictures must have been difficult to capture.
Well, for example, the pictures from “The Big and the Little Step” [one part of The Early Years exhibition] from the hospital. The babies were surprising because I went to Dresden in 1986, and in ’86 was the Chernobyl disaster. I intuitively went to Kreißsaal hospital a year later. I was wondering, because there were numerous problems with births: still births, premature births and difficulties. The doctors were surprised and I, as a photographer, was surprised. I was there for two weeks and the director of the hospital gave me permission and the women also agreed.
And the nude photos?
Firstly, I must say that the GDR was like stone, completely obdurate and closed. I started to open doors by myself, going through to the people. I can only identify myself as a mirror to other people. My neighbour worked in a signal tower, and I said that I’d never been in one and that I wanted to photograph there, so he took me to the director and I explained my concept and the director said ‘yes’. Everybody said ‘yes’, that was the wonder.
Even though the GDR was so rigid, I always got permission and was let in. Same with the naked photos. I didn’t specifically try to make them, they just happened, because I didn’t come to the people as a photographer. They were people around me: neighbors, friends, and colleagues.
And in the GDR, nakedness, the ability to let your clothes fall was something much more natural and not so forbidden like today.
These exhibitions are seen as political, what does that mean for you?
The pictures hung around for 20 years and there was always interest in publishing them, but I never received support. It took a long time to show this exhibition, as it’s shown now.
I came to Berlin as a young girl and settled into Mitte, not far from the post office, there I saw the wounds of the war. Germans always try to cover up these wounds, and the postal department is the last oasis where the feeling of the war can still be seen. After the Wende everything was whitewashed again. People don’t like identifying themselves with the darker side of this city.
Politically, Berlin played a tragic role in both world wars, the buildings, the Gestapo, the Wehrmacht and also the Berlin wall. That was all located in Mitte, now they’ve switched the paint, the uniforms, but on the inside it’s stayed the same. Many people have no knowledge of the past.
But the success of my exhibition shows that there are still people that are interested in history. Germans make a big mistake, they always see themselves from the good side, but the other side, the dark side, is ignored. When people can’t redeem themselves they always fall back into that darkness even if they don’t want to.
And now, some of the pictures are internationally known.
They weren’t successful at first; it took over 30 year to get the book Berlin on a Dog’s Night published. Other photographers would photograph and then have an exhibition and a book the next year. It took over 20 years for “The Big and the Little Step” [second part of The Early Years] to be shown in C/O.
So how does your work pertain to Berlin now?
Berlin on a Dog’s Night is an explanation of life. I was in love with the Berlin milieu; it was the reason that I came. Many journalists wrote that Berlin on a Dog’s Night was political – a social critique – and that’s not true at all. It was reminiscent. It had to do with the Berlin milieu, where people had retained something authentic and improvised their life work.
After the fall of the Wall it disappeared. With Berlin on a Dog’s night and The Big and the Little Step I show an inertia, something new and something old, and they’re in conflict.
In a city, the obstinate part sinks under, but the part that renews itself survives. My work shows the old and the new, it’s present.
The Early Years, through Feb 26 | C/O Berlin, Oranienburgerstr. 35/36, Mitte, S-Bhf Oranienburger Tor
Metamorpheses, through Feb 26 | Deutscher Bundestag, Platz der Republik 1, Tiergarten, U-Bhf Brandburger Tor