Given that postwar German political history is a lacuna for most Americans, the Goethe-Institut’s exhibition of the work of Barbara Klemm—-one of Germany’s leading news photographers—-is surprisingly comprehensible.
As viewers might expect, the exhibit offers images of such historical touchstones as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. But Klemm’s efforts to document Cold War-era political and diplomatic history, uniformly presented in unfussy black-and-white, are unexpectedly compelling.
Klemm is most closely identified with the daily newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, where she worked as a photo-lab tech between 1959 and 1970 before being promoted to staff photographer. Some of her work from the early 1970s cannily depicts otherwise colorless politicians in literal smoke-filled rooms. A 1973 image of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and German Chancellor Willy Brandt, meeting during Brezhnev’s first visit to Germany, is a festival of body language, with the rival leaders facing off warily and their aides hovering like flies (bottom).
In 1979, the 30th anniversary of East Germany, Klemm captured the “socialist fraternal kiss,” apparently on the lips, between Brezhnev and the longtime East German leader, Erich Honecker (top). But by the time the 40th anniversary rolled around 10 years later, just a few months before the fall of the wall, Klemm produced an image that clearly communicated the impending sense of doom among leaders attending an ostensibly celebratory parade.
Other recognizable German and European leaders (Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel) pop up here and there in Klemm’s extensive retrospective, but the photographer offers a change of pace with a few artsy images. One, from 1993, shows an example of the ghostly lattices of scaffolding that exemplified the post-reunification period in Berlin. Another image, of classical architectural details and sky taken through a dingy window, is so elemental that it could pass for a photograph made with far more primitive techniques in the mid-1800s.
Klemm’s most cheeky image, though, is one of a trio of figures napping in a Stuttgart park, their reclining heads echoing the tilt of the head of a nearby statue. In a world of dry diplomacy, it’s a welcome bit of whimsy.
Through Feb. 27 at Goethe-Institut, 812 7th St NW, Washington, D.C. (202) 289-1200.