Hardly any other photographer has shed light on East Germans and their livelihoods as intensively and from as many perspectives as Roger Melis (1940–2009). For three decades, the co-founder and master of East German photo-realism travelled from Berlin throughout the GDR, a country under SED rule that he often perceived as “silent” and petrified. In atmospherically dense, often symbolic photographs, he documents the everyday life of people in urban and rural locations, their working and living conditions, as well as more or less voluntarily executed political rituals in a real socialist environment.

Vivid photographs of writers and visual artists made Melis renowned in the 1960s both in the East and West. Many of his portraits of authors, including Anna Seghers, Heiner Müller, Christa Wolf, Sarah Kirsch and Wolf Biermann, subsequently became prominent in newspapers, magazines, books, calendars, posters and record covers, helping to shape the “face” of East German culture. Today, they are regarded as classics of the genre.

Melis shows the same care in portraying people from almost all social fields: workers and managing directors, farmers and foresters, craftsmen and traders, children and teenagers, functionaries and dissidents.

Melis preferred to seek out people where they worked, showing everyone the same respect. His portraits of East Germans refrain from depicting types, nor do they attempt to expose anyone. Instead they approach people gently and are open to the diversity of their experiences.

The empathetic portraits are complemented by a wide range of self-commissioned reports and striking milieu studies that combine to paint a multifaceted picture of the GDR. The images reflect the pride and confidence of East Germans, while also revealing signs of skepticism and resignation, as well as defiance and growing courage, which ultimately led to the system’s collapse.

The exhibition was produced in cooperation with the Roger Melis Archive and curated by Mathias Bertram. Two accompanying books entitled In einem stillen Land and Die Ostdeutschen have been published by Lehmstedt Verlag.

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