Evelyn Richter was twenty-two when she made her first self-portrait: an upside-down paint pot on her head, dark glasses with thick rims, dressed in an indefinable suit with a light and a dark trouser leg, a spiral necklace around her neck, a round pot in her right hand, a wooden handle in her other, her mouth wide open. She photographs herself as a machine man in a DADA performance, straight out of a painting by Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer. She provokes. She screams.
It is 1952, she lives in Dresden. Photography in East Germany must be realistic, it is the time of the Cold War. Artistic, abstract expressions are not allowed. Photographers are expected to follow the communist party line of the GDR: that of social realism.
A few years after this first self-portrait, which can now be seen in the exhibition about her work at the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, Evelyn Richter (1930 – 2021) was expelled from the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst. Officially because she missed the deadline for a paper to be submitted. But probably because she was unruly and came from a bourgeois family, says Philipp Freytag, art historian specialized in the history of photography, and author in the exhibition catalogue: “Certainly in the early days of the GDR, people wanted the children of workers and peasants to study. . She didn’t fit the profile.”
She would never fit – into any profile. Except in that of the free, self-employed, independent photographer. In her black and white photos she captured what life was like in her time, in the GDR. How people sat in waiting rooms, waited for the train, how they worked, made music, how children played. She did not follow the party’s guidelines.
For example, in a whole series of photos, Evelyn Richter showed what kind of work women did in the GDR. They worked. All. Her photos of young women behind immense machines in construction companies and printing companies are beautiful. She captures an older woman, bun at the neck, behind a machine loom; a young woman working intently behind an immense typesetting machine.
A young female crane operator, half hesitant, half cheeky, looking straight into the lens. Her photos are powerful, moving and never one-dimensional. Here is a photographer at work who knows how difficult it is to keep your head above water as a woman and to gain a position in a man’s world. Richter dared to show reality. That showed courage. “Of her photographs of women, only one was included in a government publication,” says Freytag, “that is one of a young, innocently smiling worker, sitting behind a table.”
Yet Richter did not portray herself as a feminist or political activist, she did not fight against the system. Like many committed artists, she simply did her work the way she thought she should. However, she was interested in women’s rights and fought for the status of her profession and control over her images. “She refused to simply hand over her material to the newspaper, she wanted to be treated as an image editor and decide for herself which texts were printed with her photos.” Her photos were also not allowed to be cropped.
Every photo shows how empathetic Evelyn Richter was. With her lens she captured that exhausted woman in the subway, that eagerly reading boy, that passionate violinist. She made portraits, few landscapes. Freytag calls Richter a ‘gestalten Dokumentaristin‘, that is, a photographer who sets high standards for image composition and who wanted to work in a documentary and artistic manner.
Richter was born in 1930 in Bautzen, a village east of Dresden. At the age of eighteen she became an apprentice at a photographic studio, and in 1953 she was admitted as a student at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst in Leipzig. Here she met Eva Wagner and Ursula Arnold. They often served as each other’s models and would remain friends for the rest of their lives. A photo by Eva Wagner shows how close you can be together when you cut two stones and fulfill your ‘Arbeitseinsatz’.
Sometimes Richter was allowed to travel abroad. The first time was in 1957, to Moscow, to receive an award. It was a crucial moment in her life: for the first time she worked with a 35 mm camera. There she also started the series that she would expand throughout her life: visitors to exhibitions, travelers’under the road‘, women at work, musicians.
Purely by chance, Richter visited a friend in Berlin on August 13, 1961. She witnessed how the only opening between East and West Berlin was closed. Overnight, fleeing to the West became impossible. From under her coat, Richter dared to take a few crooked snapshots: they show armored vehicles in the streets, people clumping together, staring uncomprehendingly at what is happening.
Richter also dared to capture another historical event in images: on May 30, 1968, the Leipzig city council detonated the beloved Universitätskirche to make way for a new city center in socialist architecture. “It was the year of the Prague Spring,” says Freytag, “at that time many, including Richter, lost faith in socialism. They saw that the regime was based on violence and oppression. That was the meaning of her photos.” It was not until 1977 that the recordings appeared, anonymously, in a magazine – so politically sensitive was it then.
Evelyn Richter has captured half a century of East German history in her photographs. Unpretentious, unobtrusively present, she captured the moment. She always showed silent, ambivalent moments, such as that tranquil image of a father who, holding his son, watches an inland vessel pass by from the quay. ‘Traumland‘ it says on the bow. Her meaningful images from everyday East German life make Evelyn Richter the equal of famous photographers such as Ed van der Elsken and Robert Doisneau. High time that audiences in the West also discovered and embraced her work.
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