The unimposing woman in her mid-70’s sat all alone on a grand stage. About 100 guests had taken their seats at Frankfurt’s MMK modern art museum, and all eyes were on her — and her black-and-white images.
Barbara Klemm seemed small on stage, but she’s a big figure in Germany. She spoke almost reluctantly into the microphone, and only a subtle smile that occasionally darted across her focused face revealed her joy at the interest in her work. But she would actually rather be behind her camera than on a stage talking about it.
Currently, there is a lot of interest in her work, as Ms. Klemm is giving the celebrations in Frankfurt for the 25th anniversary of German reunification an artistic framework. The entire country will be celebrating the Day of German Unity on Saturday. The highpoint in Frankfurt will be a public party and a ceremony at the Old Opera House, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Joachim Gauck taking part.
Large examples of Ms. Klemm’s work hang across the city, showing the formation of a unified Germany and how the country became what it is today. They capture masses of people on the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate on November 10, 1989, and the Day of German Unity on October 3, 1990, with an overjoyed Helmut Kohl and a moved Willy Brandt.
And there are trapeze artists, who Ms. Klemm photographed in Rostock in 1974, during the so-called Baltic Sea Week. “These sturdy girls tried to demonstrate some acrobatics,” she said, pointing to the screen. The trapeze artists in the photos float over the roofs in the old part of the city, “which in the GDR were not cared for at all,” she said. That can be seen in the crumbling facades in the background of the picture. Ms. Klemm was there often in the years prior to and after the Fall of the Wall. And it seemed that while looking at her images she was back in that moment more than 40 years ago.
Visitors to the opening had already been greeted by images of the trapeze artists when they entered the museum. It is not a normal exhibition that is currently being shown in the city, where Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck and Barbara Klemm will come together this weekend. There are 29 images on banners of differing sizes hanging on 37 facades of companies, museums, hotels and public buildings.
Ms. Klemm is center stage in Frankfurt, where she has lived since 1959. The city is not just paying homage to a special event, but also to a special woman.
Barbara Klemm not only captured the most important events in post-war Germany, but she also for decades has been one of the most respected artists of her genre. “She brought the events of the world into our living rooms with her images,” said Susanne Gaensheimer, director of the MMK. She said there is something casual about her images, not monumental, and that she always shows people in a sensitive, not exposed way.
She took photos of street scenes, sculptures, portraits of known and unknown people, especially those engaged in political life in Germany: student protests and citizens’ initiatives, the divided and reunited country, mass demonstrations and individual stories, winners and losers of elections, everyday situations and historically significant moments.
“This approach is unique,” said Ms. Gaensheimer, “because she gives reality a chance.” The museum alone has 255 of the photographer’s works in its collection, the German Stock Exchange has 25 images, and the Bundesbank has about 30.
One of the key images was taken in Frankfurt in 1969. It shows three men in white safety helmets, with an obese man standing in front. They are the stewards of the right-wing extremist party the NPD in the parliamentary elections. Ms. Klemm herself described the picture as harmless but threatening at the same time. It was so threatening that the then-Foreign Minister Walter Scheel said it had special significance. With this image, Ms. Klemm did more than all of the parties to contribute to the NPD failing to make it into the Bundestag then, he said.
She received so much recognition with the photo that she got a so-called pool ticket, or an entrance ticket for photojournalists, for Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s visit to Foreign Minister Scheel in 1973.
This gray ticket was so similar to the one for the lunch between Willy Brandt and Brezhnev, that Ms. Klemm was able to gain access to the preliminary meeting between the two heads of government. She waited, clicked the button, and her resulting image showed the two negotiating leaders, who were surrounded by translators and advisers, in such concentration that it seemed as if they were undisturbed.
In global politics, the negotiations over the treaties with Eastern Europe represented the path that later led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. For the young photographer, they were her first major political events. Her photo with the neutral title, “Leonid Brezhnev, Willy Brandt, Bonn, 1973,” was her most important work.
And it is so typical of her work: She captures a critical scene so well, it is as if she was not even there. “I have always tried to remove myself, so that I was forgotten,” said Ms. Klemm.
With a faded apron tied around her, she stood in her darkroom in a basement in Frankfurt. Next to the stereo are a couple of CDs of Beethoven symphonies, and next to them lie pictures of a vacation in the Dolomites. The window at the end of the small, narrow room is covered in a heavy black fabric.
The photographer still works in analogue, and black and white. It was a decision she said she made for pragmatic reasons. She said in her work she usually could not arrange situations, and was dependent on what was there, what she found. “If subjects are in color, they are in color, but not colorful,” she said. Color distracts from the content, she said.
She spread a sheet of Baryta paper, 30 by 40 centimeters, in a frame, stuck a negative between the brackets of her magnification device, exposed it and set the alarm for two minutes, letting the image develop for that long, set it and left it to soak for an hour and finally dried it on a press. The left-handed photographer had held each of these knobs countless ties.
The fact that she worked as a photojournalist, but for decades has still been recognized as an artist, she said is “a phenomenon that arose.” Ms. Klemm, the daughter of painter Fritz Klemm, was born in Münster and grew up in Karlsruhe. She left school at 14, finished an apprenticeship in a portrait studio, and moved to Frankfurt. There, she worked for a decade preparing the printing plates for the photos at the newspaper the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung,” worked in the photo lab and did freelance photography on the side, until in 1970 she became a staff photographer, a position she remained in for three more decades.
What drove her all of those years was the same thing: “Good pictures,” she said.
And having the right instincts helped her more than anything. After the news of November 9, 1989, she was in one of the first planes the next morning and on November 10 she climbed onto the Wall in Berlin with thousands of people – and shot the pictures that the entire nation saw. They were images of a happy young woman who reached down to a border officer on the east side and asked for his autograph. Or of Willy Brandt, who walked surrounded by people on the west side of the Wall. The other photographers ensnared him, trying to get close to him. But Ms. Klemm held back and waited for the right moment, and again did a photo unlike the others – from above.
“I have always tried to remove myself, so that I was forgotten.”
That is how she reaches the viewers, including those in many Frankfurt institutions, where her images are now gracing the facades. “Some employees of the Frankfurt Sparkasse fled from the GDR in those days, and many found their professional home here with us after unification,” said CEO Stephan Bruhn.
He said this luck did not come as a matter of course, but because the people wanted unity. “The photographs of Barbara Klemm convey this mood exactly,” he said. The Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the Stock Exchange, the police headquarters, the Bundesbank and the European Central Bank all are adorned with Klemm photographs for the celebration.
And the famous image from October 3, 1990 also hangs in the city. It shows Oskar Lafontaine, Willy Brandt, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Hannelore and Helmut Kohl, Richard von Weizsäcker and Lothar de Maizière on the balcony of the Reichstag in Berlin. They are all caught hold by the moment, in the knowledge that they were then part of history.
Barbara Klemm wanted to show the politicians exactly at the moment in which the reunification was being pronounced. Each one of them, she explained to those present that September evening at the museum, showed something different “about his life, of his character.”
She sat up in her leather seat and looked in the direction of the screen. She said she has not often been afraid in her life. But on that particular day 25 years ago, that was something else. “Because the masses in front of the Reichstag pushed us forward from behind,” she said. “And in front of us were border police who wanted to keep us back.”
She was still able to use the telephoto lens to take the photo that went around the world. “I don’t know anymore how I succeeded in having them all clear and that these moments are in it,” she said.
Dorit Marschall is an economist and works as a journalist in Frankfurt. She joined Handelsblatt in 2005, covering macroeconomic issues and specialized in long-form portraits and reports. To contact the author: email@example.com