East Germany's Helmut Newton Olaf Martens and Sexual Anarchy in the GDR

Photographer Olaf Martens was described as East Germany's answer to Helmut Newton, the West German internationally renowned for his fashion and nude photography. Martens talks about how he shot his nudes, how East Germans were more sexually adventurous and why he doesn't like being compared to Newton.


Seen.by: Why do you think it is that your photographs of East Germany (German Democratic Republic) are still so successful?

Martens: It's pretty crazy. I get a lot of enquiries from younger people, from what you might call the "Nintendo generation." They find my pictures -- and the realism in them -- cool. Photography as a whole is heading toward realism again and there's a lot of that in my pictures. Most major forms of communication today involve the computer -- but that doesn't leave much room for real life. I always tell my (photography) students to be authentic. Don't make pictures on your computer. Seek out reality!

Seen.by: Your collection of nudes goes under the title of "Patina." What does this mean, especially in regard to the GDR?

Martens: Survival. I am thinking there of an old wall or an old house where you can just feel how the patina has developed. A house changes slowly and you can see it. I like things like that. Today everything goes so fast and that makes one's roots all the more important. The GDR was simply whisked away and, in many ways, the East German people were left homeless in their own country. Suddenly there was a new society with new rules for them. And when you are homeless like that you cling to whatever remains.

Seen.by: What did you want to achieve with these nudes?

Martens: The pictures were taken in Halle and Leipzig in the 1980s. It was supposed to be a study of love in a time of socialism. And I wanted to be provocative. At the time there was only one style of photography, that sort of homemade, crafty look, as though the pictures came straight from some mountain village. My models were not professionals -- they were laypeople, actors and artists or people off the street. In the West I was pushed into a niche: nude photography. Stern magazine named me East Germany's Helmut Newton. Rubbish! At the time there was no Vogue magazine, or anything similar, in the East. There was barely even any photography from the West.

Seen.by: How did erotica in the GDR compare to erotica from West Germany?

Martens: In regards to sexuality, the GDR was completely immoral, especially if judged by Western standards. In the West there was a whole industry geared toward fantasy fulfillment whereas in the East, people just did those things. It was sexual anarchy, a way of being free in a restrictive system. You had to have some way of relieving your frustrations -- otherwise we would all have gone mad.

Seen.by: What makes your work different from that of other photographers?

Martens: Today, photos are often retouched and smoothed out. But often the beauty is in the imperfections and the diversity. Every picture has its own character. And I find old things beautiful. Old things have soul. You see the patina on an old wall, or on a piece of furniture and you think: Somebody lived here. It's the same with society in general -- if everything is always new, then there's no stability.

Seen.by: How do your pictures show your personal style?

Martens: I studied Italian Mannerism and I'm a big fan of paintings and sculpture from that period. Artists like Parmigianino, Pontormo and El Greco influenced me with their exaggeration -- the bright colors, the long figures and warped proportions. I also love their use of patina, with the old rooms, the walls and the exaggerated shapes.

Seen.by: You also do some fashion photography. How do you ensure that it's a little bit different from the run-of-the-mill fashion picture?

Martens: Fashion photography can still represent the zeitgeist in an authentic way. My pictures of swimsuits, taken in Azerbaijan, also reflected on issues we have with oil production. Near the capital city of Baku there is an area that looks like woodlands but it's actually just old oil wells and tanks. The raw reality of that landscape contrasted with the glamour of the fashion. But it's hard to pull these themes off. Most fashion editors just buy their things from a communal pot and they prefer it smooth and easy -- say a shoot in South Africa but from out of a hotel room.

Seen.by: What are you currently working on?

Martens: I have been organizing a project in St. Petersburg. There is a very beautiful church there that was built in the 1920s. It was deconsecrated and has been used as a training center for the Russian submarine fleet. It's hard to get in there because it's a restricted area. But I managed to do a shoot there. Torpedo tubes and submarine simulators and there are diving suits hanging everywhere. In the middle of the church there is a huge water tank in which the soldiers practice. It's pretty weird. I'm always looking for places like that, that seem quite unreal. They tell you stories about how places, things and values change.

Editor's note: An exhibition of Olaf Martens' work, " Blockschokolade," is currently being shown at Munich's Galerie f5,6 through Oct. 3.

Interview conducted by Sabine Tripp, seen.by

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