Art Dictionary

Sibylle Bergemann

Sibylle Bergemann

Biography

Sibylle Bergemann (*1941 in Berlin, †2010 in Gransee); 1996: photography apprenticeship under Arno Fischer; 1967 on: free-lance photographer for East German magazines such as Sonntag and Magazin;1970-1995: photographer for the fashion magazine Sibylle; 1990: founding member of OSTKREUZ Photography Agency; 1990 on: pictures appeared in such publications as GEO, Die Zeit, Der Spiegel, Stern, and the New York Times Magazine; 1994 on: member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste (Berlin Academy of Arts).

Books related to this subject

Sibylle Bergemann

Sibylle Bergemann
Die Polaroids

out of print
ISBN 978-3-7757-2843-0
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Ostzeit

Ostzeit
Geschichten aus einem vergangenen Land

available
ISBN 978-3-7757-2486-9
» More information

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Fashion is a portrait, an image of a time period

"I am interested in the edges of the world, not the center. The incompatible is crucial material for me. When something isn't right about faces or landscapes . . ." (Sibylle Bergemann)

"From the minute Sibylle Bergemann started taking photos, her impulse was to assert herself in a fantastic way, in a world full of calculation and norms." (Jutta Voigt)

A graceful African beauty in a cinnamon-brown, taffeta dress and large, ivory-colored bracelets and earrings sits in front of a squalid, open hut. A blonde model in a long flowered dress poses barefoot on top of a large ball, looking almost like the Statue of Liberty; next to her is a chimpanzee in livery, on a little chair; in the background is a circus tent.

What Sibylle Bergemann photographed—during the East German era in black-and-white, and after reunification, in color—was “always more than just fashion,” as Jutta Voigt has said. Or, to put it in Bergemann’s own words, “fashion is a portrait, an image of a time period.” Bergemann’s pictures tell of beauty and seriousness, of the ridiculous, the inimitable, and pertinacity. One of her first assignments for the famous East German women’s fashion magazine, Sibylle, was a 1974 fashion series featuring the young actress, Katharina Thalbach. The photos are of a self-confident, sensitive woman, depicted beneath an elevated railway and in a café. Here, as elsewhere, Bergemann often photographed her models outdoors, in unspectacular, ordinary places, such as streets, factories, or in front of peeling façades.

She wanted her pictures to look “as if they could be anyplace, just not the GDR.” The photographer always started with a certain personal characteristic of her model, and thus created individualistic, occasionally melancholy fashion photos and portraits, which conveyed an image of the emancipated woman. In these very subtle ways, Bergemann opposed the GDR’s proscribed conformity and smiling, state-supportive optimism. Her photos were not banned, but she sometimes had to make concessions. A well-known story is the one about a morose-looking model on a Baltic Sea beach (captioned “rainy holiday”): the corners of her mouth had to be retouched before the photo could be published.

Bergemann’s views of East Berlin are distinguished by an almost casual kind of composition and photo-journalistic style that borders on the filmic. The photographer avoided taking pictures of famous places, symbols, or clichés; instead, she sought out the atmospheric: a girl on the swings in the Mauerpark, views of courtyards, or people walking past apartment blocks. In this way she created a portrait of Berlin that went beyond the “official” heroic adulation, to show how people lived in this city at a certain moment in time.

Just as casual and full of sophisticated wit are the pictures that Bergemann took as part of her well-known 11-year-long study of the construction of the Marx-Engels memorial (1978-86) in Berlin. “I simply photographed what I saw,” she explained, “and what makes it seem funny is that one knows that it’s Marx and Engels, and they’ve got cleaning rags on their heads, are hanging from big ropes while being transported; one is missing a lower body at some point, or at another point, they’re headless.”

After the reunification, Bergemann began another phase in her career. She traveled around the world, mostly on assignment for GEO magazine, capturing portraits and landscapes in India, Nepal, Vietnam, Greenland, America, and Africa. Black-and-white now gave way to color. Up to the very last, Bergemann’s camera painted subtly toned images, not of the center of the world, but of its edges.

21.03.2011 Anja Breloh

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