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Progress as a Promise: Industrial Photography in Divided Germany

Progress as a Promise: Industrial Photography in Divided Germany shows the sometimes conflicting hopes and realities of industry in East and West Germany

Photo: Deutsches Historisches Museum

Dramatically lit factories, glowing steel, seemingly endless conveyor belts, broad smiles on sooty faces: the stock-in-trade of industrial photography is the promise of more and better.

Better working conditions and a better standard of living. More attractive, more functional, more plentiful consumer goods. In short, progress. Photography is itself a product of industrialisation, and photographers have been capturing the world of work since the 1850s. In the process they have forged a specific visual canon.

The exhibition “Progress as a Promise: Industrial Photography in Divided Germany” shows photographs taken for industrial enterprises in East and West Germany between 1949 and 1990.

In this exhibition, the photographs are shown for the first time in the contexts in which they were originally used, the diverse print media of the steel, chemical, textile and car industries. The curators, Stefanie Regina Dietzel and Carola Jüllig, reveal the ideas associated with the historic visual sources, drawing out differences and similarities between East and West in the depictions of progress – and thus in the promise of a better life.

Such commissioned photographs were always produced to communicate a message – about the enterprise, the industry, the nation and its people. They do not necessarily tell us a great deal about real working conditions or the actual state of industry. What they show is a staged reality designed to convey promises of progress and narratives of growth.

Photo: Ruhr Museum

One of the most surprising findings is the continuity of the visual language and motifs, which remains astonishingly constant across the four decades and between the two Germanys. Mining is illustrated by gritty images – mostly in black-and-white – connoting darkness and hard physical labour. Iron and steel is characterised by flying sparks and glowing metal.

Seemingly endless rows of spinning machines typify the textile industry, with colourful substances in glassware serving the same function for the chemicals sector. These devices often originate in the early days of the respective industry. That is the dilemma of the genre. Conveying industry and innovative in comprehensible forms means drawing on bold but familiar visual traditions.

Photo: August Horch Museum

The exhibition is part of the 10th EMOP Berlin – European Month of Photography. A comprehensive catalogue (256 pages, 280 illustrations, in German) has been published by Hatje Cantz. The exhibition is accompanied by educational events, discussions and a cinema programme.