Christian’s Borchert’s ‘Familienporträts’ pull the viewer in off the cold West Berlin street, into a position of a post-Cold War voyeur; peering into the domestic situations of individual families who lived through the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) and then what became of them after.
Borchert (d.2000) began the series (1983-1985 &1993-1994) in the late 1970s, cementing the idea upon meeting sociologist Irene Runge, who suggested, with his background in photo-journalism, that he illustrate ‘Ganz in Familie’. With financial support from the East German government, the photographer shot more than 100 different families ranging from those inhabiting Mecklenburg and Magdeburg to the suburbs of Berlin, Leipzig and Dresden. After the wall fell in the early 1990s, Borchert revisited many of the families and took their portraits once again.
50 of these works are now on show at Loock Galerie. The same formal portrait style is used in both the early and later shots, telling us, through a ‘before and after’ set up, what the passage of time does and doesn’t do to a family (anywhere) and what the change in political and societal structures over the period meant for an East German family group.
The photos of each family are hung closely one on top of each other, the viewer able to drift into one portrait and then quickly dive into an ‘update’. And dive you do - the eyes greedily taking in the details of clothing, who is who, what they have in their bookshelves and which possessions have been cherry picked to display for the shoot.
Meanwhile, the mind grapples with an omnipresent cliff hanger. Three children become two, a man and woman become wife and grandparents vanish. Another pairing - whose changes takes a while to work out - shows a man who has married again, producing an identical set of toddlers but who will grow up in a very different set of circumstances to their step-siblings. Elsewhere, the passage of time pinches at the chaos and idealism of youth. A shot of two artists in headbands and their gamin babies is updated in the next decade: their bohemian existence swapped for a suburban home with neat teenagers.
There is humour and joy to the series, a warmth from many of the families can be felt to emanate. An apparently 30-year-old cat and sheep appear in both shots of one family group, the feline hoisted gracelessly under a man’s arm in both pictures. ‘Familie T./F’ is relabelled ‘Großfamilie T./F’, as another generation arrives and the family beams out from the chaos with pride.
Access to the subjects meant that a higher number of families captured by Borchert’s lens are from a similar strata of (East German) society to the photographer himself. Thus, the image of the musician, composer, architect or the actor of the 1980s and 1990s are all readily present. Next to the farmers, factory workers and administrative staff, we are reminded not of the division of East and West but division within the East.
The changes and repercussions of German reunification are laid bare for the viewer. By the 1990s, a little boy’s jumper is Nike and elsewhere an American tea towel hangs from a cooker. The labels next to the images - uniformly given as family name, location, job - tell us even more about life after ‘die Wende’ and are fascinating documents of social history alongside the pictures. Where one family moves ‘up’ West to Charlottenburg after reunification, others become ‘arbeitslos’. DDR specific jobs meanwhile, are swapped to new roles relevant for a Capitalist not a Communist reality.
Rather than be seen as monuments to the past these works ask us to re-evaluate history. They query and partially answer the questions: what changed for every day citizens after the Berlin Wall fell and what was specific to a DDR family circumstance to begin with?