This is how Helga Paris, a photographer in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), came to take the photographs in “Women at work”.
“Whenever I was at the shopping centre, I looked at people, watched them closely, imagined how they come home tired from work, before they do this and that. But I could only endure these situations when I was in a good mood; whenever I wasn’t feeling so well, I couldn’t stand these strong emotions.
And when the women then stood at the checkout in the usually long line and waited, it all fell away from them and they had a relaxed expression, calm and completely with themselves. Then I thought, I would like to phot ograph them like that.”
She had experience of a textile factory in Berlin from an internship there when studying fashion design and returned there later with her camera. She asked the women (some of whom remembered her) to pose any way they wished.
The outcome is a remarkable set of black-and-white portraits -colour would rob them of an essential sparseness- of women who are at their place of work but not defined by its constraints.
The mystery of individuality shows itself in differences of demeanour as each one chooses how to handle the formality of a portrait: where to place their hands, in a pocket of clothing, resting on a surface, holding scissors, a needle or a cigarette; whether to stand or sit; to return the camera’s gaze or decline it.
Born in 1938, Helga Paris settled in a working class district of Berlin when she was nearly 30. She moved in bohemian circles and became acquainted with artists, many of whom were good communists, who knew there was more to art than what Party officials enunciated on the topic.
“Kunstler-portraits” is a book of her photographs of them and one is a group portrait taken in the studio of the sculptor and graphic artist Hans Scheib. According to the book’s afterword by Eugen Blume, the young man sitting to the far right by the table, with a woman’s hand on his shoulder, was a Stasi informer. Liked for his intellectualism but a Judas in their midst. Most of the photographs in “Kunstler-portraits” are those of earnest, serious artists and this is what Paris responds to with her own integrity. Her work, sharing a like-minded thoughtfulness, is a window into a spirit of autonomy in the GDR.
Paris continued to take photographs after the fall of the Wall but her work stopped in 2011 when she finished a series called Menschen am Alex (People at Alexanderplatz).
“I said what I had to say; there is nothing more to add. I can’t say anything more. You have to be excited, after all, with every single shot. And I just don’t feel that excitement anymore.”
What remains is a body of work worth immeasurably more than the thirty pieces of silver earned by the traitor she photographed.