Retrospective of harald hauswald: fast, fearless, cheeky

"Full of life!" A retrospective at c/o Berlin pays tribute to Harald Hauswald as a chronicler of the late GDR and master of street photography.

Harald Hauswald, concert by Big Country, Radrennbahn, Weibensee, Berlin, 1988 Photo: Harald Hauswald/OSTKREUZ/Federal Foundation for Reappraisal.

On January 17, 1984, the Stasi notes at 2:50 p.m. that "Radfahrer" has stepped out of "the gateway to the apartment building at Kastanienallee 11" and is "carrying a shoulder bag and tripod." At 4:25 p.m., "cyclist" comes out of another house in the same street: "shoulder bag and tripod he had with him again." Later, "cyclist" will still visit toy store, bakery and fish store.

The Stasi monitored the life of "Cyclist," whose real name was Harald Hauswald, so intensively that even trivial details were recorded. They illustrate how Hauswald was able to capture everyday life in the last years of the GDR so candidly: The camera was always there. The Stasi file opens "Voll das Leben!", the large Harald Hauswald retrospective at c/o Berlin. One is welcomed by the hugely enlarged cover sheet with indispensable information on height ("183 cm"), hair structure ("straight") and peculiarities ("heavy smoker").

From the point of view of the Stasi, the object of observation was the most feared underground photographer of the GDR. Hauswald was, as Felix Hoffmann, curator of the exhibition, characterizes him, an "observed observer" whose images were "a thorn in the flesh" of the GDR. The country felt so threatened by the man with the Canon A1 that it not only had him monitored by up to 40 informal staff, but also temporarily withdrew the right to educate his daughter. The exhibition focuses on Hauswald’s work in the 1980s, the period in which his most important photographs were taken.

Stasi file and surveillance photos

Leaving the first room, where excerpts from the Stasi file and surveillance photos are pinned to the wall, the viewer’s eye is immediately drawn to one of Hauswald’s most famous portraits: three working people sitting side by side in the subway, two holding on tightly to their briefcases, all three looking tiredly, frustratedly, disillusionedly past the camera into nothingness. The exhibition is full of these iconographic shots from late socialist everyday life.

The show: "Harald Hauswald. Full of Life! Retrospective," through Jan. 23, 2021, c/o Berlin, daily 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Hardenbergstr.22-24, 10623 Berlin.

The catalog: published by Steidl, 408 pages, 45 euros.

At the time, the GDR could hardly hide the fact that it was doomed: the blurred flags on the edge of the 1. May Day demonstration in 1987; the Berlin Cathedral reflected in the glass facade of the Palace of the Republic; the impressions of the streets of East Berlin that Hauswald captured like no one else. "It’s completely subjective documentary photography, classic street photography," says photographer Ute Mahler of her colleague. "You have to have certain character traits for that, you have to be fast, fearless and also a bit cheeky."

Important agency

Thirty years ago, shortly after the fall of the Wall, Hauswald, Mahler and five other East German photographers founded the Ostkreuz agency. Over the past two years, Mahler has dug through her colleague’s archives, which have yet to be cataloged. She has sifted through approximately 7,500 35mm films that Hauswald, who was born in Radebeul in 1954, exposed. Then she whittled down the convolute to 5,000 images, which were collected on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of Hauswald’s birth. The selection was scanned on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of reunification and at the expense of the Federal Foundation for the Reappraisal of the SED Dictatorship. This selection, in turn, was reduced to 400 for the exhibition and book by Felix Hoffmann, Mahler and co-curator Laura Benz.

They are street scenes and pictures from East Berlin bars, shots of dancing and drinking, of demonstrators and cheering, of slogans on the walls of buildings with which socialism assured itself, and soldiers guarding this socialism. But anyone who sees them now, these images that in their entirety bring a vanished country back to life, must also be aware that this exhibition celebrates one of the last great representatives of an art form that is probably dying out. "Hardly any of these photos would still be possible today due to the new regulations and the right to one’s own image," says Ute Mahler. "This spontaneous photography says an infinite amount about the place and time, but that will fall away in the future. The genre of street photography is coming to an end."

This was not yet an issue for Hauswald in the eighties or even early nineties, when he photographed the eviction of squatters in Berlin-Friedrichshain and the strikers in factories threatened with liquidation. The camera, as he himself put it several times, was never just a working tool for him, but a key to the world. It was always with him, whether at the lake with his family or during his work as a telegram messenger, at the backyard parties of East Berlin’s bohemians, in the stands of a soccer stadium or during the xenophobic riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen.

There he succeeded in taking one of the most impressive pictures in the exhibition: the gray wall of a prefabricated concrete slab building from a distance, in one of the few windows stands a small, barely recognizable man, raising his arm in a Hitler salute. Much more so than the incomparably more famous Spiegel photo of the Hitler-saluting Rostock resident with sweatpants pulled down, Hauswald’s shot captures more unobtrusively, indeed more delicately, the entire desolation of such a right-wing radical existence.

Great tenderness

It’s one of the photos Mahler came across while working her way through Hauswald’s oeuvre, and where she discovered another little-known Hauswald. "Harald’s images are on point, but the best-known ones in particular often don’t have a second layer. It’s loud photography, too superficial for some," she says. "But during the research, I was surprised to find many quiet images as well that have a great tenderness."

It is these photographs, some never before published, that make the retrospective more than a greatest-hits compilation of a deserving artist. Images of his family or those Hauswald photographed during his tenure at the Stephanus Foundation in the early 1980s. The pictures of the handicapped residents of the church institution in Berlin-Weibensee are never voyeuristic, always loving, always empathetic.

They show in exemplary fashion that Hauswald – as c/o managing director Stephan Erfurt put it at the press conference – is not only "the great chronicler of East Berlin," but also "a poet who not only finds images, but seeks them out."

Hauswald himself says that when he photographed the disabled people, he first had to learn, was allowed to learn, how to create closeness to his photographic subject. The pictures from the Stephanus Foundation are the key to his becoming the master of street photography that can be admired in this exhibition.

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