Any Answers: Ute Mahler

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“In my projects, I always start with questions”

Known for her raw portraits and images of daily life in the German Democratic Republic, Ute Mahler has been a professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Hamburg since 2000. Together with her husband Werner, and five others, in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, she co-founded Ostkreuz, the most renowned agency in Germany today.

My earliest memories are of walking with my grandmother. We always came back with found objects – stones, feathers, flowers, wood or bones.

My father was a photographer and it was always clear to him that I would also become one. I considered other options – I wanted to be a doctor or teacher. But he was correct, photography is absolutely right for me.

The work of Robert Frank is important to me. I always discovered new aspects in his photographs despite looking at the same ones repeatedly. His pictures touched me because they never quite revealed their secrets.

I experienced reality differently to how it was presented in magazines and posters. That’s why I took pictures of life as I perceived it. They formed part of my long-term project, Living Together [1972-1984].

The best photographers in the GDR worked for the fashion magazine, Sibylle. Almost all of them came from documentary photography. We photographed less in the studio and more in urban spaces. The everyday life in the background of fashion photographs is what really interested me.

With a picture, you are less committed than with words. It is more open, more interpretable. 

My teacher, Arno Fischer, always said that photography is not a sport. It is not about being first, the best, or the fastest.

Photography has taught me patience. I am not a particularly patient person. But when I’m taking photographs, waiting for a facial expression or the right light, I can be infinitely patient.

It was clear that after 1990 almost all our former clients would no longer exist. The GDR publishing houses and magazines were dissolved. I had to look for new partners and was lucky that the western print media were curious about my pictures and wanted to work with me.

Founding Ostkreuz was a great idea. We were all facing a new beginning, a new life. We were stronger as a group. We didn’t want to give up the photographic attitude we had developed in the Federal Republic. We wanted to remain ourselves and not let the market determine us.

In my projects, I always start with questions. If I want to know more about a subject, I try to get deeper into it by taking photographs.

It is a strange feeling when you become aware of finiteness. That you simply can no longer read all the books you wanted to read, see all the countries you wanted to see, and take all the pictures you wanted to take.

Today, there is no longer a pure belief in the objectivity of documentary photography. It is always subjective. That is the interesting thing, to see pictures of reality and to recognise the photographer’s attitude in them.

Werner [Mahler] and I have been working together since the project Mona Lisas of the Suburbs was published in 2011. Our teamwork is good for the projects and for us. We have a concept, a large format camera and decide together on location, on the motif and the detail.

In May 2020, Werner and I photographed fashion for the first time in 25 years. The editors of FAZ magazine gave us carte blanche, and we decided on the 4×5 camera and black-and-white film, and photographed young people on the Elbe River. 

Michael Grieve

Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.