Photographic Treasure Trove: What East Germany Was Really Like

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They wanted to clean up the basement but found a treasure trove of photos instead. After Berlin teacher Manfred Beier died, his sons stumbled across 60,000 pictures. Their father, it turns out, created one of the best documentations of life in East Germany, and the first days of the West.

It's amazing how little you can know about your own father: After the death of Berlin resident Manfred Beier in 2002, his sons Wolf and Nils began to sort out their inheritance and came across a treasure. They found dozens of wooden boxes stacked on shelves as well as numerous chests of drawers -- similar to pharmacist cabinets and apparently custom-made. The drawers contained removable inserts, each of which had staggered rows of small drilled holes about three centimeters in diameter. Each of these holes held a roll of miniature film.

The brothers knew their father had taken a good deal of photographs throughout his life. But this? They could only estimate the number of pictures that their father had left behind: some 60,000, plus a series of home movies -- a seemingly unmanageable collection. In his basement, though, they found 38 notebooks that served as the keys to the collection. The orderly, handwritten notes -- on roughly 4,000 sheets of paper -- helped the brothers keep an overview of all the film rolls as they rummaged through the basement. Manfred Beier had made a chronological list of every photo, complete with an archival numbering system. The notes detailed exactly how each picture came to be -- the day, hour, and minute it was taken; the camera, aperture, and shutter speed used to take it; and the exact location of its subject.

It is a photographic diary of the long life of Manfred Beier, who was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1927, grew up at Strausberger Platz square and was drafted as a teenager into part of the last-ditch Volkssturm German army defense at the end of World War II. He worked for decades after the war in the East German school system and always carried at least one camera with him -- even on his forays into the West, for as long as he was able to go there and once he was able to go there again. It's a photographic diary of German history. And it is the most comprehensive and complete documentation of everyday life in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, the former East Germany) -- unique in its photographic and cultural-historical value, experts say.

A Big, Heavy Bag

"We never thought it was so much," says Nils Beier, this despite the fact that photography was always present in the Beiers' everyday life. "Whenever we were out, our dad always had a huge bag with him." The bag contained two cameras for 8-millimeter film and at least three other cameras -- so that he could always switch between color and black-and-white film or slide and medium-format photographs -- and, finally, light meters, filters, and lenses.

For the kids, the contents of the bag were off-limits. The boys would have also liked to push the shutter release button, "but he didn't let us touch his things," Nils Beier remembered. Instead, they were indirectly involved in their father's passion -- his constant picture-taking sometimes manifested itself in the everyday life of the family as a "permanent disruption."

The father's hobby also made an impression -- to the disappointment of their mother -- in the household budget. But not even that distracted him from his passion. Instead, he perfected his craft: from a 36-exposure roll of film, he usually got 40 photos -- sometimes even 41. Every picture needed to be a success. He developed the negatives himself. The fact that his family occasionally had enough of the incessant photo snapping didn't bother him: he frequently strode alone through the streets in search of new subjects. His family only became aware of this much later, upon viewing the large collection.

Prussia 's Collector

That it not only is large -- but also "so organized" -- was also unexpected. Their father could be very pedantic and as a teacher he was not really strict, but he always had a clear sense of an orderly life. But this orderly? Wolf and Nils were particularly stunned because they knew that photography was not their father's only habit: "He was a serious collector."

Stamps, newspapers, and books piled up around him. The teacher of geography, German, English and astronomy was interested in nearly everything, especially German history -- and in particular, the history of Prussia. However, in his private library his system of organization was one that only he could understand.

Because of limited space, a portion of the books had to be stored in the garden house where they were damaged by cold and humidity. Over the years, their father had collected around 20,000 books and hundreds of thousands of stamps. "After his death, we got rid of over 100 cubic meters," the sons said.

The photographs, however, remained undamaged -- cool and dry in the basement. The bigger surprise was the subject matter: "The pictures say more about our father than we knew about him," the sons said. "He was obviously different than the person we knew." They are especially impressed with his "positive worldview" and by "how beautiful the pictures are, especially the portraits." Not at all as technical or bureaucratic as the detailed documentation of their creation would suggest.

"I've Never Seen Anything Like It Before"

About a photo from 1950 -- taken during a trip to a mountain range in Thuringia -- Manfred Beier noted: "Description: Taken while using the pneumatic drill on granite in Henneberg. A granite block is being worked on. Shade! Mr. Klabes is drilling. As audience (from left to right): Haase, Mrs. Klabes, the laborer." In the photo are two women, who are bent over from laughing, while a young man, whose pompadour has fallen into his face, struggles with a pneumatic drill while wearing a white shirt with rolled up sleeves.

When Beier wasn't photographing the people in his direct vicinity, he focused on apartments, cupboards, streetcars, buses and construction sites. In the 1950s and until the construction of the Berlin Wall, he regularly traveled to West Berlin and bought expensive but high-quality color film while photographing the Ku'damm avenue and the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church -- as a counterpart to the ambitious Stalinallee boulevard in the east.

"Fascinating color photos from the 1950s and 60s, which are also interesting for architectural history," said Oliver Sander, head of the division at the German federal archive office. The archives recently took over the Beier collection. Sander is excited: "I have never seen such good stock material!" Until now, the federal archives only had official GDR photography or photos from the news agency ADN -- which mainly depicted "cheery socialism and its successes." Manfred Beier's photos add a new element to the photographic memory of the state of "farmers and laborers." "It is the alternative stock collection for re-examining everyday life in the GDR," he said.

Until The End

The pictures show everything that Beier saw in his life; the notebooks demonstrate how he tried to record it all. But the collection doesn't explain one thing: Why did he do it? Those who remain behind can only speculate -- he left no explanation. "For us, it seems that he wanted to document his life in order to preserve it for himself. As if he needed to provide proof that it had ever happened," his son said. There is an element of compulsiveness to it.

The family thinks that Manfred learned photography from his brother GŁnther, who was three years older. Originally, GŁnther was the passionate photographer in the family. Many of the early pictures in the collection were taken by him. When his brother died in an accident in 1952, Manfred acquired the camera. He finished the film and his brother's remaining notes. He kept the archival numbering system GŁnther had started and appeared to want to continue his work -- possibly, to preserve his memory.

This documentation of his life -- "even when he couldn't any more, my father still tried," explained Nils Beier. He took his last photo in 2002, three months before he died, from the balcony of a clinic. "We first saw that after his death -- in the camera that lay in his room."

The Beier Collection Web site can be reached here.

A photography exhibit at the Berlin gallery "Unterwegs" features a selection of Beier's photos until June 6. More information here (in German).

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