BY Thomas Groß in Reviews | 11 NOV 98
Featured in
Issue 43

Smile Now!

BY Thomas Groß in Reviews | 11 NOV 98

'Jetzt lächeln! Studiofotografie am Beispiel Mathesie' (Smile now! Studio photography following the Mathesie example) is only superficially about Charlotte Mathesie, her photographic shop in Kreuzberg, Berlin and the 17 female trainees who worked for her over the years. The selection of images drawn by local artists/researchers from about 300,000 pictures in the Mathesie archive shows something that the photographers did not intend: the micro-history of a district, of its inhabitants and, not least, its dogs.

At first glance, the photos seem unspectacular and scarcely of international interest. It was mainly 'ordinary' folk who came to Mathesie: workers, lower-middle class people, a few officials. People visited because they needed an official photograph, or to record important occasions: first communions, engagements, weddings the stations of middle-class life.

Most of the portraits have nothing of the shrill eccentricity that determined Kreuzberg's public image after the early 70s as home to a 'scene'. Mathesie's studio was about craftsmanship, not self-realisation. The events that shook both the city and the district, from the student movement via squatting battles to the Berlin variation on the 'Junge Wilde' in a shop-gallery in nearby Oranienstraße, did not impinge on Mathesie's world; or if they did it was belatedly their main concern was everyday service to everyday customers.

Founded immediately after the war, Mathesie existed long before Kreuzberg became bohemian. And while artists came and went in the early 70s (David Bowie hung around for a while, but obviously not long enough to learn how to spell it in the booklet for his CD Outside) the Mathesie institution, with its local knowledge and rigidly friendly photographic rites, just kept going. Certainly the leading lights of the studio developed their own styles, but all the presentations have a serial quality. Those who posed in front of the Mathesie lens were incorporated without distinction into the overall visual archive. And so, without being aware of it, the studio carried out a long-term study of the district and its protagonists uncommissioned mass-observation.

The exhibition reveals a large variety of types that emerge thematically. At the same time, however ­ and this is what is most interesting a certain Berlin mentality reveals itself. Its innermost principle is anachronism; the tradition Romanticism. This is manifested in a stubborn resistance to modernisation, sometimes with traces of dark humour. Scepticism about the future persisted for so long in Berlin, and especially in Kreuzberg, because for decades the city was only lightly touched by the powerful currents of innovation that swept the rest of Western Europe. Mathesie was a darkroom on an island on the fringes of the Western world.

This is the only way in which it is possible to explain how the studio already a dinosaur in the age of passport-photograph machines could fly in the face of new technology for so long. It was not until the mid 70s that Charlotte Mathesie introduced colour photography to accommodate the wishes of her growing Turkish clientele. The convention of the middle-class portrait, painstakingly kept alive under lower middle-class circumstances, was lost with the demise of black and white, and the first signifiers of pop culture penetrated this hermetic world. Turkish women wear gaudy headscarves, Kreuzberg shop-girls appear in orange skirts the explosion of colour could be tamed only with difficulty by determined formal will on the part of the studio assistants. But the struggle was useless ­ suddenly there were freaks in front of the camera, trying to assert themselves in the image of a new age. In this respect there is something tragic about the Mathesie studio's output in the 70s: trash photography against its will.

The studio survived into the 90s despite all this. Then, because of a drastic rent rise, it had to make way for a Chinese takeaway. It had clung on so long only because of the peculiar features of the 'Berlin economy': a very special version of muddling through as a survival principle a kind of balance between opportunities and resources at a time when there was not much to be gained economically. 'We cannot expect our customers to pay higher prices!' is apparently what the Mathesie women always said when they were asked about declining business. The whole neighbourhood, including the bohemian element, showed its appreciation in the form of commissions and word-of-mouth recommendations. In this respect differences between artists, military service escapees (West German military service requirements did not apply to West Berlin before 1989) and local lower middle classes were levelled out for decades according to a kind of higher losers' logic.

The loss of this stability also indicates a more profound stimulus for this exhibition: nostalgia for the studio is substitute mourning for a district. Only now, when the Kreuzberg bohemians are no longer young, and Berlin's new hipsters live in the cheaper East, it is obvious how much, despite all sociological, aesthetic and biographical differences, everyone was in the same boat as Charlotte Mathesie who came up with yet another slogan of the moment as she reached pensionable age: 'It will change, but the world still goes on'.

Translated by Michael Robinson