Helga Paris, Leipzig Hauptbahnhof 1981/82

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Spector Books (here). Thread-sewn hardcover, 144 pages, with 80 black-and-white reproductions; 7×5.5 inches. Includes a text by Inka Schube, English translation by Steven Lindberg. Edited by Inka Schube, designed by Malin Gewinner. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Leipzig, East Germany, in the early 1980s. A woman makes her way through the city’s Central Train Station. She comes and goes, to see friends, attend a concert, perhaps, to visit the annual book fair or the documentary film festival. She is petite, in her early forties, and carries a camera. Every so often she stops, for a long moment or a short instance, and presses the shutter. One click, the lens opens and closes, and rays of light hit a small piece of film, engraving the scene that caught her eye. Back at home, in East Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg district, she goes into the darkroom, develops her negatives, makes contacts, and, occasionally, some work prints. New projects begin, while others continue, but not this one. Helga Paris puts the Leipzig photographs aside, and time moves on.

In 2019, curator Inka Schube is preparing a major retrospective of Paris’s work (scheduled to open in December of the same year) at Berlin’s Akademie der Künste [Academy of Arts]. After curating two previous solo exhibitions, and living on the same street for a number of years, Schube knows both the photographer and her work well. One day in March, the two women are in Paris’s archive, when they come across a small cardboard box labeled “Leipzig Hauptbahnhof” (“Leipzig Central Train Station”) – a body of work that Paris vaguely recalls, and Schube has never seen. They open the box and find seventy-six prints of a place that still exists in a country that is gone. As is usually the case for Paris’s work, the photographs stand out for their most insistent feature: people. While only a small selection of these images will be included the in the exhibition, most of them make their way into this photobook. Joined by a few others pictures, which Paris took in the same place and period, and wished to include for their “documentary value,” it is this box of forgotten photographs that is at the heart of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof 1981/82.

Almost like a tribute to the photographs’ former home, a humble cardboard cover opens to a quiet sequence of sumptuous images in black-and-white. At times one, at times two to a page, they meander from full-bleed, double spreads, to the size of small postcards (which feel intimate, even though I often wish they were a bit larger). In them we see men and women, young and elderly, with and without children, sometimes with dogs. Some of them rush, others wait. There are soldiers and railway clerks, couples and colleagues, groups of friends and acquaintances. They say hello and wave goodbye, wait tables and buy tickets, they sit on benches and ask for information. Some of them face or turn away from the camera, look around or into themselves. There are people who are on their own, but they rarely seem lonely.

All of these photographs are imbued with the same kind of light that, no matter how bright or fading – depending on the time of day, appears as if filtered through gauze. The longer you look, the more you realize that it is this light, the atmosphere it creates, which anchors gestures and expressions, architectural details and interior décor within the everyday world of the train station; its “elegance” and “ordinariness,” as Schube describes in the book’s accompanying essay, and the sympathetic way in which Paris saw them: Whether it is a waiter in his white dress jacket and ennobling bow-tie; or the slightly crushed wood paneling that instead of belittling, only highlights the inquisitive face of a women sitting beneath.

There are many stories one could tell about these photographs and the people within. What is, perhaps, most remarkable about Leipzig Hauptbahnhof is its soliloquy with time. Time in the sense of past, of years gone by, but also in the sense of recent history, mediated through the station’s physical architecture, as much as its social fabric.

“Everywhere in the world, train stations are sites of the uncertain, of hope, of joy, and of pain. Here people part ways and find one another; the courses of biographies and fates intersect and shift [. . .]” Schube writes. The painful scale embedded within this statement is especially true for German and German-operated train stations, from where millions of people were deported to concentration camps during the time of National Socialism (ie, Nazism). In the case of Leipzig’s central station, however, and Paris’s photographs thereof, the layers of history stretch and condense even further.

A central location for international trade and transportation during the modern era, the station’s majestic design – with its expansive main hall, high arcades, and sculpted garlands – as we learn from the book’s essay, was conceived as a joint project between the Prussian railway division and the Royal Saxon State Railways (the state-owned railway operated by the Kingdom of Saxony). Completed in 1915, while World War I was already ravaging, the German Empire slowly declining, and modernist architecture plowing its path, the Leipzig train station set out as a symbol and remnant of a fading world. Largely destroyed by 1944, but thanks to the city’s significant trading history, the station was rebuilt, over the course of twenty years, to match its original predecessor – becoming yet again a central location within the then German Democratic Republic (GDR). This fact of reestablishing the station’s former appearance seems striking when considering the distinctly different aesthetics of typical Socialist architecture. For viewers of my generation, who were born in the West and shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it might be equally surprising to find the insignias “DR,” short for “Deutsche Reichsbahn,” on East German trains. Established during the Weimar Republic as the German rail company’s official name, and gaining an entirely different connotation during the Third Reich, this name was kept within the GDR. And then of course, there are the distinctly East German clues – the advertisements and counter displays, suitcases stating GDR and USSR, uniforms and furnishings – which together, create multifaceted, complex layers of time, past and present, and past again.

It is through small details such as these, that Paris’s photographs of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof push well beyond the streamlined perspective and broad-stroke narrative with which West Germany often has, and still does regard the GDR, its history as well as the people who lived within.

One is tempted, then, to assume that Paris’s Leipzig photographs disclose – only that this word isn’t accurate, for disclosure presumes the existence of a secret (not ignorance). Other words that come to mind to characterize her images are present and document. Are they more fitting? Formally, Paris’s photographs invite the comparison with those of Sybille Bergemann, Ute Mahler, and Evelyn Richter, all women who lived and photographed in the GDR, capturing the country’s daily life, the ordinary and extraordinary, its architecture and people in telling ways. Paris’s images, however, are significantly different. They don’t document, demonstrate, or elevate. Instead, there is a feeling of tenderness and solidarity that closely relates to the images of Czech photographer Markéta Luskačová’s By the Sea (reviewed here). It is a resemblance in spirit, not style. Most revealing being the perspective through which both women capture their subjects: at eye-level, not photographically but humanly. In doing so we are allowed to witness an exchange between the photographer and photographed, one that is grounded in recognition and implies that each person is seen as their own character, in their own small cosmos of lived experience, even though we might not know what this experience is.

In an interview Paris once said that growing up, she was influenced by the amateur photographs of her aunts, who kept shoeboxes full of pictures. “The amateur is a lover,” she explains. “They photograph friendly and what they like. I don’t make photographs that confront people with criticism. I don’t have to do that.” And while other equally important influences include early Soviet and Italian cinema, painting, theater, and poetry, I believe that this statement is important.

As a photographer who seems particularly attuned to “the fragility of being,” Paris’s gaze embraces Leipzig’s central station as “a stage of life.” A life that she has both gently and poignantly portrayed over and over again – in the streets of Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin bars and factories; in the faces of trash men, punks, and seamstresses; in places such as Halle, Moscow, New York, and Transylvania.

Looking at her photographs of Leipzig Hauptbahnhof 1981/82, many of them allow me to imagine what it felt like . . .  to be there, to live there. Perhaps, because Paris is a self-taught, there is another word I find to describe these images: vernacular. However not in the word’s overused, almost devoid meaning, but a very specific sense instead: “relating to a period, place, or group.” Something similar to the color grey – made of opposites, uniting layers, merging hues – one that we can all relate to.

Collector’s POV: Helga Paris is represented by Kicken Berlin (here). Paris’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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