Berlin

Sibylle Bergemann, Birgit, 1984, gelatin silver print, 9 3⁄8 × 14".

Sibylle Bergemann, Birgit, 1984, gelatin silver print, 9 3⁄8 × 14".

Sibylle Bergemann

A series of black-and-white images shot in 1976 in Clärchens Ballhaus, a dependable spot for fun in then-Communist East Berlin, shows a night out in fragments, like a soused memory: the ballroom’s grimy looming facade; a bowtie-wearing diner, alone but OK with it; lubricated couples clutching each other on the dance floor like flung-together characters in a Fassbinder movie. When, deeper into “Sibylle Bergemann: Town and Country and Dogs. Photographs 1966–2010,” we encountered Clärchens Ballhaus, 2008, everything and nothing had changed. The photo, in color now, shows a cracked, desilvered mirror reflecting the venue’s frozen-in-time wood paneling and chandeliers. Past and present fold together: The city outside has transformed utterly, but here, one could have been in the mid-1970s. This is the work of a photographer who, though she’d traveled the globe in the intervening decades, missed an old world, however imperfect it was. Tight framing could summon it back.

Berlin, fixed name of a morphing entity, is the leitmotif of Bergemann’s oeuvre, which hopscotches among reportage, fashion photography, and architectural atmospherics, at times crossbreeding them. It wasn’t always clear from the captions which of these images ended up in German fashion magazines—where Bergemann (1941–2010) established herself in the early ’70s—and which constitute off-the-clock people watching. Her editorial photography was characterized by a very-Berlin unsentimental realism that, nevertheless, didn’t exclude casual-looking beauty. Has the handsome man eyeing the photographer from a tram in Berlin, 1972, been caught by happenstance, or is the picture a flattering setup? Bergemann’s unvarnished style did not depend on human subjects, as was evident in images of raw tenements crisscrossed with washing lines and of the chintzy interiors of German Democratic Republic flats time-capsuled in severe symmetrical compositions. Then came the great undoing, anticipated by spectrally calm, candlelit street protests in 1989 and followed by the destruction, in the 1990s, of Communist architectural icons.

Amid all this, Bergemann shot wonderful portraits of women: actor Katharina Thalbach, a moon-pale twentyish bohemian vamp smoking Frenchly over a slice of café gateau in 1974; singer Nina Hagen, gamine and prefame with her mother Eva-Maria in 1976; Heike Krohne power-dressed in an elaborately strapped leather jacket, standing for self-assured countercultural youth in 1988. Meanwhile, Bergemann was also increasingly finagling international editorial work: Moscow in the 1960s, then Paris and New York, and by the ’90s Japan and Africa—Ghana, Mali, Senegal—at which point she switched to color photography (the show, accordingly, took a Wizard of Oz–like turn). Seynabhu, 2001, almost felt like a throwback to that guy on the tram in 1972: A beautiful and bedecked woman gazes distantly out through the unglazed window of what appears to be a bus or train, and if she isn’t a model she could be.

But Bergemann was never done with Berlin. If it wasn’t dated 2001, you might think her wintry black-and-white view of Karl-Marx-Allee, with two bedraggled snowmen holding hands against a backdrop of unforgiving Soviet architecture, was taken in, say, 1965. It’s riddled with Ostalgie—nostalgia for the former East—and awareness of how dour constraint might amplify evanescent pleasure. The series “The City,” 2004–2009, uses fashion portraiture and architectural studies to assess what was gone, what remained, what lingered as phantom. In the show’s most indelible image, Birgit, 1984, a statuesque brunette model poses incongruously at the side of the autobahn. As a Trabant—the GDR’s signature clunker—sputters past, the scene is anchored by two swatches of blackness that seem to need each other. One is the model’s sleek trench coat; the other, in the background, is thickly belching factory smoke.