This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Anyone who frequents flea markets knows them. The unassuming boxes filled with old albums, postcards and photographs, hidden between junk-covered stands and old furniture. Even if you're not looking for anything, you still flip through pictures of strangers' holidays, family gatherings and random snapshots; sometimes you even make it through someone's whole life. You often take a second to wonder why these pictures were taken, who these people were and why in the world they wanted pictures of them like that at all.
Siegfried Sander goes to flea markets to uncover these long-forgotten stories. What others see as unwanted inheritance or rubbish he buys up, using the pictures for his research. Sander specifically looks for photo series that differ from typical flea market photography – moments that weren't meant for the public eye, or that took place behind the facade of bourgeois decency. He also keeps an eye out for long-forgotten professional photographers, whom he would like to memorialise on his website.
One focus of his collection is portraits of women, and nude photography that shows the motifs around the ways women were portrayed from the 1920s to 70s. The collection also focuses on photography where people are captured in extraordinary and absurd moments: postcards advertising attractions featuring little people, portraits with polar bears, Christmas trees without families, and people inexplicably dressed in matching outfits. I spoke to him about the collection.
VICE: How long have you been collecting and how did it start?
Siegfried Sander: I'm an art dealer and gallerist in Hamburg, so I already move in flea-market and antique-shop circles for my career. Thirty years ago, my wife and I started buying furniture and design pieces and it all started when we bought a cabinet for our office that happened to be filled with the previous owner's photo albums.
They were a childfree couple. The 20 to 30 photo albums exclusively showed the owner's dog and his wife. But, the man actually cut his wife out of every single photograph; her face was never in the pictures. For example, when she takes their dog for a walk, you only see the leash and an arm. Over the years and decades he documented his dog's life, and never once included his wife on film. I thought that was so interesting, psychologically. If you spend a lot of time with old photos, you find the craziest things, again and again.
Do you know anything about the original owners or the circumstances surrounding their photos?
Sometimes I can find out information from the stamps on the backside. All of the pictures in the "Women" collection were taken by professional photographers, who used lighting on the women. You don't know of them (yet) from breakthrough exhibitions or books and some will never be known unfortunately. But there are downright legends among them: Julian Mandel, for example, was a photographer in Paris in the 20s and 30s. He made thousands of postcards but there's no information about him in books or online. There are rumors that he could have been a famous photographer working under a pseudonym, not wanting to ruin his reputation with this kind of "trashiness" – meaning female nudes. Millions of his pictures exist, but nobody knows anything else about him.
Which probably has to do with the subject matter itself and the silence that surrounds it ...
Exactly. There's also the legend of Monsieur X. They say there was a wealthy man in Paris who had a car and, with a friend, bought women from the red light district for a lot of money, made a nice life with them and liked to photograph them in hotels and in nature. When he was old, he went to a publisher and entrusted him with thousands of photographs on the condition that they wouldn't be published until after his death, noting that the negatives had been destroyed. The other condition was that his identity was never to be revealed, otherwise his family would drop dead. You can believe it or not ... but there are a lot of these kinds of legends. And sometimes I know nothing about the pictures – the ones from East Germany for example.
In the East German pictures you see underwear that's photographed as though for a catalogue, with various backdrops, that must have been taken in a studio. But then you can clearly see the photos were taken in private apartments. Alongside the poses for the catalogue, you always find shots where the photographer was clearly more interested in the model than the clothing.
You can really smell the 60s and 70s here. They look a bit like F.C. Grundlach. You see semi-abstract compositions set up in the room made of cardboard. But Grundlach had sturdy walls. Here you just see cardboard hung up with string unfortunately.
The historic and sociological context must play an important role when talking about the origins of the East German pictures.
Definitely. I have contact with someone who used to work at the post office in East Germany for example. Aside from his job, he also set up a network of semi-professional nude models. His hobby was photographing weddings, especially when there were guests from the West. He would develop the pictures overnight and sell them to the people from the West the next day; he made a lot of money doing it. Then he would take the money and enlist women to model nude through secret classified ads in newspapers and by postcard.
They were normal women, doctors, salesgirls – all kinds. Of course the women didn't want people to know that they were being photographed for money. Some of them made a lot of money; some made more nude modeling than at their normal job. Then the postman would sell or trade the nudes within his circle of friends – they didn't have any exotic magazine market.
That's why it would be interesting to know who these pictures were meant for.
I'm less interested in the historic dimensions. I'm much more interested in the craziness. For example, I have pictures from a lawyer who photographed his Christmas tree each year, but never with his family. Over many years, the tree is always decorated, but solitary. It kind of recalls Harvey Keitel in the movie Smoke. He takes a picture of his street corner every day. These series sometimes have something meditative to the people who made them, even if they just seem crazy on the surface.
The collection really shows a breadth of visual language and topics and varies between the questionable and the banal, humorous and serious moments. What holds them all together?
Some things seem really foreign to you, while others seem very familiar. They're all things that draw you in and you don't necessarily know why. For me as a viewer even, it's still always a self-awareness trip. For me it's about a personal discourse. Why does someone photograph something exactly this way? This question mark in my head is the starting point for all the pictures.
By publishing the series I've collected, I would like to show, aside from my personal discourse, that life is much more colourful than we could imagine – without morals and judgements.
Some of the series in your collection, for example "Wet Laundry," "Man Photographs Woman," "Outdoor," and "Flowerpower," depict quite ordinary moments that then look absurd as series. You have to ask yourself here why the people in our analog past wanted to capture these moments. And why very many of the same motifs show up in different families.
I was brought up to believe that taking pictures was something special. You needed a camera to take pictures. And, like many technical creations of that time, the camera was usually kept by the man of the house and usually he was the only one to use it. He was able to show all the things he owned with the camera. That's why there are so many pictures of cars, bikes, girlfriends and dogs.
And then there are these motifs that get repeated. For instance, the wife in her Sunday best next to a magnolia bouquet. Maybe this was in a movie or it was a template in a magazine, because you see this a lot. There are certain proto-motifs in photography that take on a life of their own – but everyone thinks they're being original and doing it for the first time.
You also discovered the photo series "Geliebte Margret", now up on many blogs, at a flea market, right?
I have contacts to flea market people in different cities who set pictures, magazines and movies aside for me. In this way I got a suitcase with photographs that I sold to Galerie Zander. I was very happy that the pictures became famous through them.
"Margret – the Chronicle of an Affair" shows the meticulous logging of an affair in 1970 between a married employee, Margret, and her just-as-married boss in West Germany. He photographed her for months when they would meet up, and kept the pictures in a kind of diary where he also noted – in administrative German – the specifics of their meetings, including comments on her mood swings, dandruff and pubic hair. He obsessively pointed his lens at his beloved. After a few months, the affair ended and with it the diary.
After it was published, a lot of people told me they know of other people leading similar double lives. I'm interested in these kinds of stories. You look from above at photographs that show a little sequence of someone's life, like in the movie Down to Earth, with an unknown beginning and end. With the Margret story, the gallery still could have made sure neither of them have any family left.
So you'll continue to look out for these kinds of stories at flea markets?
I wouldn't have anything against discovering the next Helmut Newton while rummaging at the flea market. But there are so many other photographers and series where I don't want them to slip into oblivion. So it makes me happy when people visit my website and even want to know more about the individual pictures.
More from VICE: