Ute & Werner Mahler: "Kleinstadt"

Appreciating Mundanity

Photobook Reviews, Episode 2 – by Kate Schultze

If you’re interested in contemporary German documentary photography, it won’t take long until you come across Ute and Werner Mahler’s work. The Mahlers have been one of the biggest influences on GDR photography, having worked for the famous GDR fashion magazine Sibylle and for newspapers like Stern. Together with five other photographers they founded the Ostkreuz Agentur für Fotografie, which has remained one of the most influential German photo agencies since German Reunification. If you’re lucky, you might be able to attend one of their lectures at the universities they still teach at. Ute and Werner have been married for over 40 years and since 2009 exclusively publish their work under one authorship. Ute and Werner's work has become so intertwined that they do not distinguish who took what photograph. Frankly, to them, it doesn’t matter.


Hartmann Books


Linen-Cover, 26x32cm, 144 pages


59 €


“Kleinstadt” - ‘Small Town’ in english - is a collection of photographs featuring German towns that you wouldn’t even accidentally pass exiting the autobahn. They’re too big to be a village, but too small to be a substantial town and have a population between 5,000 and 20,000. In fact, the government recognises this size of settlement as specified in German protection laws. No matter where you live, you will most likely have encountered a place like this. But you probably didn’t pay enough attention to your surroundings as it all seemed to be too ordinary to do so. The Mahler's photograph exactly this ordinariness.

Ute and Werner's almost static black and white photographs explore the details of mundanity. They find beauty in normality: meticulously trimmed front gardens; empty shop windows collecting dust over the decades; young adults gathering at a bus stop as if it were the most exciting place to be within close proximity. Their townscapes seem surprisingly dense, their portraits calm and composed yet incredibly intimate. If, like me, you appreciate superbly framed 4x5 inch documentary shots, this is definitely where you will find it. If you’re not from Germany, I envy you, as you might get the same kick out of the Mahler's work as I did looking at the work of Alec Soth the first time.

The Mahlers have published four books in recent years. Their first publication together “Monalisen der Vorstädte”, a travel diary “Lissabon ‘87/’88”, “Kleinstadt” and their latest book that just came out last month “Ein Dorf”. These books explore the peculiarities of everyday life (not to mention they’re all also beautifully printed). Personally think “Kleinstadt” is the perfect way to start. Not only is this book a detailed study of seemingly uniformly colourless German small towns, but approaches the subject with humour and wit, which proves we Germans can do it, if we just try hard enough.