Arno Fischer

A Retrospective

5 November 2009 to 3 January 2010

Arno Fischer is one of the most significant photographers of the second half of the 20th century. His pictures and his classes in Leipzig, Berlin and Dortmund have shaped three generations of photographers in both East and West Germany.

Born in 1927 in Berlin’s working class district of Wedding, Fischer served an apprenticeship as a pattern maker and studied sculpture before turning to full-time photography in 1950. A key experience for the young photographer was the 1955 Family of Man exhibition, in which Edward Steichen sought to demonstrate the humanist potential of photography and to highlight the universality of human experience in a ‘century of catastrophes’.

Arno Fischer’s earliest body of work was produced in Berlin between 1954 and 1960, and with every passing year the significance of these photographs becomes clearer. Known under the title Situation Berlin, the broadly conceived series of pictures documents the social, cultural and political situation in the ‘Four Sector City’. The planned publication of the photographs in book form was cancelled at the last moment by the GDR cultural bureaucracy when the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 led to the removal of the completed mock-up from the shelves of the Leipzig Book Fair. Fischer’s early Berlin pictures paint a deeply poignant portrait of the city scarred by the Second World War and the hysteria of the Cold War. They form the first part of the exhibition.

In 1962 Arno Fischer began to work for the East German culture and fashion magazine Sibylle which employed many of the finest photographers and journalists who sought to escape the ubiquitous ideology-driven uniformity and to infuse the magazine with an international flair. Fischer’s fashion photographs took the ostensibly lofty cultural aspirations of the GDR leadership at their word. For him fashion was not an expression of some overreaching design ambitions but of way of life that provided an aesthetic corrective to the excessively egalitarian everyday. His pictures are among the early examples of a style of fashion photography that eschews studio artificiality in favour of the idiom of street photography and that is as fresh today as it was then. The exhibition presents several of these works.

The next group of works provides an insight into Arno Fischer’s multifaceted work as a portraitist. His early portraits focus primarily on the protagonists of film, music and the stage in post-war Berlin. Later Fischer took every opportunity to portray international stars as well, among them Marlene Dietrich, Juliette Gréco and Yehudi Menuhin, to name but a few, but also a number of actresses, directors, dancers and artists whose names have since fallen into oblivion. Fischer invested the same sensitivity, empathy and keen interest into his portraits of unknowns. The portraits bear witness to the artist’s background in figural sculpture: they are suffused with a sense of simplicity and calm, capturing the essence of the sitter in a fragile equilibrium between intimacy and distance.

His career as a photographer allowed Arno Fischer to travel widely, both in the East Germany and further abroad. The fourth chapter of the exhibition is entitled By the Wayside and presents pictures from the GDR, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe as well as from India and Africa. The pictures testify to the photographer’s keen power of observation. It is not the crucial moment of aesthetic tension that gives rise to their timelessness, but the narrative behind the image. ‘If I take a picture of a man waiting for a bus at a bus stop, the picture must show more than a man waiting for a bus,’ the photographer explained his artistic creed.

In 1978 and 1984 Arno Fischer travelled to New York. Yet it was not until 1988 that 150 of his New York photographs could be published in the book New York. Views with an introduction by the celebrated playwright Heiner Müller. To this day, the pictures have lost none of their power to arrest the viewer. The intensity and acuity with which Arno Fischer captured people and situations in a city that was at once alien and deeply fascinating remains as striking today as it was two decades ago. Vintage prints of many of the New York pictures are shown in the exhibition.

The final chapter of the exhibition is devoted to a series of Polaroids of Fischer’s garden. In 1978 Arno Fischer and his wife, the photographer Sibylle Bergemann, acquired a modest farm house in Gransee north of Berlin. In the same year he began photographing still lifes and details of the plants, stones, tools and furniture in his garden with an SX 70 Polaroid camera. These unique and unrepeatable pictures represent a concentration of his work on a very personal subject. Over the years, Arno Fischer spent more and more time in his retreat, transforming it into an enchanted refuge. The Garden series, which had to come to an end in 2007 when Polaroid film went out of production, comprises pictures from thirty years which the artist arranged into a series of triptychs that show absolutely no respect for any form of chronological context. The three decades appear to converge into the single moment when the shutter button was released and to infuse that moment with timeless permanence.

An exhibition of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (IfA), Stuttgart ,
in cooperation with the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn


Arno Fischer

Billingual edition, german/english
Format: 24,5 cm x 28 cm, halfcloth embossed
228 Pages, 184 illustrations, 66 colored
Museum edition: 25 EUR
Trade edition: 39,80 EUR
Publisher: Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern
ISBN: 978-3-7757-2548-4

Cataloguecover: Arno Fischer
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  1. Image from ExhibitionPhoto: Peter Oszvald © Kunst- und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland GmbH

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