Stefan Moses - connoisseur of the German soul

Exhibition shows works by the famous photographer from his homeland as if it were an “exotic country”

Photo: Elsa Bechteler-Moses Stefan Moses

Stefan Moses (1928-2018) was one of the major photographers of the Federal Republic. At the beginning of the 1960s, his photos of members of various vocations - always shot outdoors before a grey sheet of cloth - made him one of the most famous portrait photographers in Germany. He explored everyday life in his homeland as if it were an “exotic country” - which is also the title of a new exhibition at Berlin's German Historical Museum (Deutsches Historisches Museum).

Ahead of the opening of the museum back in 1991, Stefan Moses, already renowned as one of Germany's most famous portrait photographers since the 1960s, was commissioned to produce a series called The East Germans.

Moses spent months traveling around the former GDR, getting to know the people whose lives had been most directly affected by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Placing factory workers, fish packers, mechanics, police officers, but also artists, pastors and writers in front of a grey felt cloth, he portrayed the faces of “the other Germany”. It became one of the most important series of his oeuvre.

Now, in an exhibition titled Exotic Country: Photo Reportages by Stefan Moses, the same museum revisits the work of the photographer who died a year ago on 3 February 2018.

Stefan Moses was born on 29 August 1928 in Liegnitz, Silesia (today the Polish city of Legnica). Having two Jewish grandparents, he was labelled by the Nazis as “first-degree mixed race”. In 1943 he was therefore banned from school and worked as an apprentice for photographer Grete Bodlee in Breslau until he was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1944, which he survived by escaping.

After the end of World War II, Moses continued his apprenticeship and became a theatre photographer in Weimar, which is also where he photographed Nobel Prize laureate Thomas Mann, a guest there on the occasion of Goethe's 200th birthday in 1949.

In 1950, Moses moved to Munich, where he worked as a photojournalist. He lived there until his death.

Working in the tradition of pioneering German portrait photographer August Sander (1876-1964), creator of the famous People of the 20th Century series, Moses nevertheless developed his own style. His respectful and nuanced portraits, usually in black-and-white, are legendary.

The young photographer was a chronicler of his times, documenting through different series in the 1950s and 60s the snobbish nouveau riche of the West German Wirtschaftswunder, big city poverty, or the seclusion of former German emigrants who had left Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.

His photos appeared in popular magazines such as the weekly Stern, and contributed to changing Germans' perception of society. Today, his works are contemporary historical documents.

His black-and-white portrait of Chancellor Willy Brandt, alone in a snowy forest, is an icon of German photography. Theodor W. Adorno, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hilde Domin, Tilla Durieux, Thomas Mann, Heinrich Boell, Guenter Grass, Martin Walser and Botho Strauss are just some of the public figures he portrayed.

“Taking photos is remembrance work,” Moses once said of his art. “Mine is to document people before they disappear.”

The exhibition Exotic Country: Photo Reportages by Stefan Moses is on show from 1 February through 12 May.

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