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Framing society

Stefan Moses challenges the constraints of traditional portraiture and turns the art of photography into a form of magic

Stefan Moses is credited with rewriting the history of photography by seeing the world as a stage.

THE PHOTO-EXHIBITION, Deutsche Vita (German Life), currently on at the Max Mueller Bhavan, brings to the viewer a set of 46 black-and-white images captured by one of the most influential and original authors of contemporary German photography, Stefan Moses.

Born in Liegnitz, Lower Silesia (now Legnica in Poland) in 1928, Moses took his first photographs when he was eight, using his father's Steinheilplate camera. He attended the Zwinger-Gymnasium in Breslau, but was forced to leave the school for being a Jew.

His real photographic career began in 1943 in Breslau, as an assistant to Grete Bodlee. After the war, he first became a theatre photographer at the National Theater in Weimar, and then a set photographer in the DEFA Film Studios at Potsdam-Babelsberg. In 1950, he immigrated to Munich and became a photojournalist and travelled across the globe. He also began long-term projects on Germany and Germans, which was to become his central theme.

From 1970, Moses involved himself in photo-sculptures consisting of collages and montages. Winner of several distinguished awards, Moses is credited to have re-written the history of photography — by seeing the world as a stage.

His brand of portraiture holds a fascinating and unconditioned closeness to human beings and a profoundly humanitarian approach in studying them. His protagonists are from several strata of society: from politicians to philosophers and writers to watchmen. Irrespective of their social status, they happily pose for him — very often in his trademark Brechtian setting, in which he uses an enormous cloth as the backdrop. The leitmotiv is a sentence from Novalis: "Each person is a small society."

Over the years, Moses has worked through several interesting series and Deutsche Vita brings a fine selection of photographs from them.

Deutche-West (Germany-West) is dominated by full-length profiles of varied groups such as the merry tram conductors (Cologne, 1963), uniformed street workers (Berlin, 1964), nimble women gymnastic teachers (Kiel, 1964), and so on.

Deutche-East (Germany-East) is another fascinating journey defined by many moods and settings in which two particular shots make for absorbing viewing. In one, playwright Heiner Muller, who spanned both sides of the wall with his powerful and poetic critique of 20th-Century history, stands in front of a skyscraper. In another, two men and a woman are seen inside and atop an old automobile. For the series titled The Elders In The Forest, Moses literally transported Germany's key political and cultural figures to woods, where they were surrounded by sturdy trees and tender foliage. What comes out is another enthralling set of images including that of the Federal Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Willy Brandt. In a memorable picture, Kδthe Kruse, the ageing puppet artist, sits on the stump of a tall tree, clutching her favourite doll.

At first glance, Mirror Images seems like a playful series, where Moses allowed well-known public figures to take pictures of themselves, setting a tall mirror before them. But emerging from it are the mesmerising portraits of Marxist philosopher, Ernst Block, distinguished academic and critic, Hans Mayer, existential philosopher, Karl Jaspers, and Otto Hahn, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944 among others. Stealing the show is the endearing self-portrait of Erich Kastner, the German satirist, poet, and novelist who was known for his witty and laconic writing associated with the highbrow cabaret.

For the series on Masks, Stefan Moses gave artists about five minutes to disguise themselves, before photographing them. The results are amazing even in such a light-hearted exercise. Gunter Uecker, surrounded by prickly nails, filmmaker Herbert Achternbuschusing a light curtain to produce a surreal face, and painter-engraver Otto Dix's penetrating gaze through the rings of scissors are some of the expressive innovations that have come out of this series.

The exhibition concludes on March 17.


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