The Martin-Gropius-Bau hosts a retrospective exhibition of the complete works of legendary photojournalist Barbara Klemm.
With a 45-year career as a press photographer for the esteemed Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) behind her, and a multi-award-winning, globe-spanning oeuvre to show for it, Klemm is no ordinary photojournalist. Her archive comprises a sheer encyclopaedia of political and cultural insights from 1968 onwards, breaching the barrier between journalistic documentation and artistic genius at every juncture.
Is this a landmark exhibition for you?
I’ve had a great many exhibitions, and I’ve never requested them. I have always been invited. But this one is really the pinnacle. Although the younger audience who come to see it may not know much about the history in the photos, it just might inspire some interest, and I find that wonderful.
You grew up in an artistic family. Do you think this background influenced your work?
Yes, and I think it was partly subconscious. I grew up with art all around me. Later on I also visited quite a few museums with my husband. I always found them impressive and would note how the painters had arranged their compositions. They have that luxury, whereas we have to take a picture of something in motion. If the picture is well composed, then the content becomes clearer and more solidified for the viewer, and consequently it may be considered a good picture. But I do this quite unthinkingly. As a photographer, you’ll be waiting, watching as someone runs down the road or something, and you just have to capture it at the right moment.
You always have to have your camera in your hand…
Yes. Now that I no longer have an obligation to a newspaper it is different for me, but I always used to have the feeling that someday I would be able to put everything I saw and captured to use, and that is what I did. But it only works when you are focused. Not just walking down the road, looking this way and that or into shop windows, but really studying things. Only then do these kind of moments come along.
Do you ever have a shot in mind before you take it?
I never have the shot in mind. Ever. You might be thinking about what you want to do and how you’re going to do it, but then you go in and everything changes. You have to react quickly. You must always be open, alert and agile, and hope that you get something the others don’t. What you caught on analogue film couldn’t be replaced – that was always the biggest fear. With writing you can always listen back to something or ask another question, but with photography, what isn’t in the photo doesn’t exist. For me and my colleagues, that always played on our minds.
So it’s a matter of intuition?
Yes, to an extent, but also developing your own technique over time. Over the years I learned to withdraw myself, to try and stay calm when everything around me started to get wild, and then to observe closely and seize the moment. You also need the right base of knowledge. You must always be informed; it allows you to work much better. This isn’t only important for writers. Photographers must also do it.
The crossover of the political and the cultural in your work is fascinating. How did you negotiate between the two spheres?
Well, it just so happened that at a certain point I began to want to take portraits. And having travelled a lot between East and West, photographing artists and actors, I realised that it was enormous fun. I would keep the meetings to an hour, make sure I was well prepared for them and ensure that we would be alone – no other writers or colleagues. Because I realised that the subject would have no choice but to focus on me, and would tend to tell me more about themselves.
And do you have a favourite photo?
No! That is a very difficult question. The picture of Brandt and Brezhnev (1973) is of course my emblem, so to speak. It was the beginning of Willy Brandt’s attempts to bring an end to the Cold War, and at the end of it all, the wall came down, so it was very important.
How were you able to capture that moment, with all its tension?
The tension was just there. It was quite a small group of journalists that was allowed there, which didn’t actually include me, but I somehow managed to get in. Brandt and Brezhnev sat there and talked intensely to one another as we photographed them. They totally forgot we were there. I was very young, and I must have been concentrating so hard on capturing the image because I can’t remember what they were discussing anymore. But I felt this moment of tangible suspension as Brandt was considering something, his advisors persuading him, and it was incredible. Such a moment can hardly be captured nowadays.
Barbara Klemm – Photographs 1968-2013 Through Mar 9 | Martin-Gropius-Bau, Niederkirchnerstr. 7, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Potsdamer Platz, Mon-Sun 10-19
Originally published in issue #123, January 2014.