Photographer Roger Melis

May 18, 2019, 12:34 PM. My East German friend and colleague, Heinz-Uwe Haus, sends me the link to an online announcement of an exhibition in Berlin of Roger Melis’s photographs from the GDR era. Melis (born October 20, 1940; died September 11, 2009) was an East German photographer specializing in portraiture, photo-journalism, and fashion photography. He was one of the first to present a wide-ranging portrait of the GDR and the people who inhabited it. Above all, he was known for his powerful portrait photographs of the GDR’s leading literary and artistic figures including Anna Seghers, Christa Wolf, Thomas Brasch, Wolf Biermann, Franz Fühmann, Heiner Müller, and Sarah Kirsch. According to the announcement, “Hardly any other photographer documented the East Germans and their everyday experience for so long, so intensely, and in so many respects as Roger Melis. For three decades the co-founder and ‘Master of East German Photorealism’ (Die Zeit, June 21, 2007) travelled far and wide across the GDR, a country that he often found ‘silent’ and ‘ossified’ under the rule of the SED. As a critical observer and chronicler, Melis captured the urban and rural lives of people in atmospherically dense, often symbolic photographs. His empathetic portraits and careful reportages create a complex picture of East Germans in the years between the construction and fall of the Berlin Wall.”

In the introduction to his book In a Silent Country, Photographs 1969-1989, Melis writes: “My most important task has always been to create powerful portraits of people, whenever possible in their natural living and working environments, and to avoid stealing their souls and instead to approach them sensitively, remaining—and I use this antiquated expression deliberately—in awe of the individual, a respect which the police and Party secretaries also deserve. You cannot choose the yardstick by which you are measured, but if I could, it would be this one above all.” (Leipzig: Lehmstedt, 2007, 12-13)

In the summer of 1975, while on my first sabbatical leave from Oberlin College, I travelled to East Berlin to begin work on a project that would become the three-volume book DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter (GDR Literature During the Thaw). The objective of this book was to introduce readers to the leading East German writers of the day, especially to those who were shaping the new sociocritical direction of writing during the 1970s. Each author would be introduced by a bio-bibliographical sketch, portrait photograph, and a personal statement about his or her goal as a writer; this would be followed by a recent representative text—a short story, poems, essay, or chapter from a novel—a text focusing on some problem in GDR society that was of concern to the writer as a writer; and finally, there would be an interview based on a questionnaire I had designed to elicit each writer’s responses to issues in contemporary GDR society.

Klaus Schlesinger, the first GDR writer I interviewed, contacted Roger Melis and arranged for me to meet with him. In mid-November 1975, I stopped by Melis’s apartment in the central district of Berlin and had tea with him while we discussed my project. He was extremely accommodating and offered to give me (free of charge!) portrait photos of any writers I wanted, as long as I had their permission and would give him credit in my book. I would meet with Melis again in the summer of 1976, as well as in late fall of 1977, and once more in the spring of 1978. In his apartment Melis had a separate file for each of the writers he had photographed and in advance of our meetings would select some photos for my consideration. In all instances, I followed his recommendations—with one exception. The exception was Jurek Becker, with whom I got together frequently and who over time had become a friend. Jurek had a splendid sense of humor and was a remarkable storyteller. For the most part, the stories and anecdotes he told would make people laugh—and Jurek would often laugh as well. But there also was a quiescent sadness that Melis had managed to capture in his black and white photos of Jurek, as if he had looked through the lens of his camera and been able to see beneath the surface. One photo in particular captured my attention: It showed Jurek sitting on a swing in his yard, relaxed and smiling broadly. That was the photo I wanted, the happy Jurek, not the sad and pensive one depicted in the other photos. That photo was not one of Melis’s favorites, nor was Jurek fond of it. Still, that photo found its way into my book and to this day Jurek’s comment reverberates in my mind: “You Americans always want to have smiling people in your photos. That is not natural!”

There are black and white portrait photos, taken by Roger Melis, of twenty of the forty-five GDR writers represented in DDR-Literatur im Tauwetter. Those authors are: Erich Arendt, Jurek Becker, Volker Braun, Günter de Bruyn, Fritz Rudolf Fries, Franz Fühmann, Peter Hacks, Stephan Hermlin, Bernd Jentzsch, Rainer Kirsch, Sarah Kirsch, Karl Mickel, Irmtraud Morgner, Heiner Müller, Erik Neutsch, Siegfried Pitschmann, Hans Joachim Schädlich, Klaus Schlesinger, Anna Seghers, and Martin Stade. If you want to view these marvelous photos, go to my website (https://richard-zipser.com) and click on the tab labelled “Photos of GDR Writers.”

In retrospect, I realize how very fortunate I was to have met the master of East German photorealism and received from him, as a gift, those twenty portrait photographs. Roger Melis’s stature as an artist has grown considerably during the years that have gone by since we met back in 1975, and his contributions to my book have enriched it and enhanced its value as a literary-historical document. Moreover, Melis and I have something very important in common: he was the chronicler of a world that ceased to exist—and so am I.