Retro Heaven

Photographing the Dead

The photography of Rudolf Schäfer…

schOne of the more interesting aspects of the Cold War and in particular its later years was the influence of the western half of Germany on its cultural cousins in the eastern sector and in particular its more avant garde artists. West Germany as was and is, has enjoyed a long tradition of producing writers, artists and performers who actively set out to shock their audience and in the 1980s despite the East German state’s best efforts that influence found favour with photographer Rudolf Schäfer.

Schäfer worked as a freelance journalist in East Berlin during the 1970s where he also earned a reputation for his nude photography. Throughout the sixties and seventies Schäfer and other photojournalists were, unbeknown to the rest of us, capturing stunning images of everyday life behind the Berlin Wall. Stark portrayals of intimacy, illness and deprivation which, post reunification has done much to shape our understanding of everyday life in the GDR throughout its troubled history. It seems remarkable to think that the state police would allow photographers such as Schäfer and Christiane Eisler to operate but indeed they did and their work deserves to be sought out.

The smuggling of books and magazines from one sector to the next is well documented and it isn’t difficult to understand the thirst artists such as Schäfer had for information and inspiration from his Western counterparts. But despite the rigidity of the state and its enforcers Schäfer and his colleagues pushed the boundaries as far as they could and in the early 1980s Schäfer undertook the most controversial project of his career; photographing the dead.

This was not a shock tactic gimmick on his part, for some time he held strongly felt convictions about the treatment of the dead in both the East and the West and he set out to show the newly deceased in as respectful a manner as he could. Having gained permission from hospital doctors he photographed a number of people who had died of natural causes, most had been dead less than a few hours and the collection was turned into a book, Der Ewige Schlaf: Visages de Morts. 

What he set out to capture (and I believe he succeeded) was that tranquillity of passing, looking at the subjects one would assume they were asleep and quite possibly enjoying a pleasant dream. Their faces show a peaceful, content quality and helped remove what he saw as the sterile nature of dying in hospital. His work and philosophy found favour in the West and his work was exhibited widely in West Germany throughout the 1980s, highlighting the success of these artists determined efforts to showcase their work to a wider, democratic audience.

What Schäfer and fellow photographers of his generation succeeded in achieving was a true reflection and record of life in a country most of us assumed was very one dimensional. The true beauty of photography in the social documentary genre is in its ability to capture a sense of society in its most intimate setting, free, however fleetingly from the shackles of authority and imposed morality. Their work deserves closer inspection and serves as yet another reminder of what they, and others could have achieved had they lived on the other side of a brick wall.


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