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The bpk picture agency has finished cataloging the oeuvre of a great photographer – Abisag Tüllmann – and in doing so has set a standard for making analog photographs accessible in the digital age.

Let’s suppose that you want photos of Joschka Fischer, the Green Party politician. Just type his name in the search bar of this excellent new website – and up comes a famous photo that shows him as a young street fighter in 1973, at a so-called teach-in on tactics for squatters in the Westend district of Frankfurt. Arms folded, with a cigarette in his mouth, he gazes straight at the camera with a bored expression. It is an image that has since entered the canon of history. And it is by no means the only portrait that the photographer, Abisag Tüllmann, took of the man who would one day become the foreign minister of Germany. This and many others are now available for all to use on the bpk picture agency’s new website: bpk-archive.de/tuellmann/ You can see Tüllmann’s photographs of Fischer attending the Al Fatah Conference at the Palais des Nations in Algiers in 1969, addressing a so-called tribunal on the subject of “Do the police use torture?” at an adult education center in Frankfurt in 1974, and at the launch of his German-language book, Governing before studying – a political diary, in 1987.

And so it goes on, page after page, be it Adenauer, Kohl, or Adorno; fashion, art, or culture, in photos from Israel, South Africa, or Zimbabwe. The new website, due to go online officially on October 7, 2020 (the 85th anniversary of Tüllmann’s birth) isn’t just a user-friendly introduction to the vast oeuvre of a great photographer, it is a real treasure trove. Incidentally, it reveals what a hard-working woman Tüllmann was, how wide her range of interests was, and how political her view of the world was. “If I can get people to reflect on things, I reckon that’s quite a lot,” she once said. For almost all of her career as a photographer, she was based in Frankfurt. She recorded the progress of Germany’s “economic miracle,” she accompanied the student protest movement and the women’s lib movement, she portrayed migrant workers and the homeless, and she traveled to places where the fault lines in society were most striking, such as Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). She held up a mirror to society itself. She was also closely involved with theater, documenting productions by Claus Peymann, among other things. Along the way, she developed her own visual language, her own style. Hers was a very sensitive, empathetic approach, sometimes verging on the poetic.

Viele Menschen in einem Raum bei einer Versammlung, ein junger Mann mit Zigarette schaut direkt in die Kamera
Joschka Fischer (front) at Frankfurt University during a teach-in on house-to-house fighting in Frankfurt's Westend, Oktober 1973 © bpk / Abisag Tüllmann
Eine Frau hält einen Fotoapparat in der Hand
„Ich mit kurzen Haaren“ – self-portrait in a mirror © bpk / Abisag Tüllmann
Wand mit Plakaten, einer Telefonzelle und einem Getränkeautomaten
Phone booth and vending machine in Tokyo (1973) © bpk / Abisag Tüllmann
Eine Frau geht über die Straße, hinter ihr ein roter Doppeldeckerbus mit der Werbeaufschrift "Pan Am"
Street scene in London (1966) © bpk / Abisag Tüllmann

At the time of her death, in 1996, Abisag Tüllmann was considered to be one of the most important German photographers of the twentieth century. She may be seen as a chronicler of the former West Germany, creating images that have left their mark in collective cultural memory. Her work was published in more than a hundred different newspapers and magazines. She left a vast and varied estate, including more than 56,113 original prints, 8,538 negative films, around 25,000 color slides, and around a thousand written documents and letters. Her theater photographs were purchased during her lifetime by the German Theater Museum in Munich; the remaining part (with all the concomitant rights) was acquired later by the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation) for the bpk picture agency. The agency is responsible for a total of over 12 million photographs, making it one of the largest collections of historical documentary photos in Europe. Later still, in 2014, the Abisag Tüllmann Foundation decided to dissolve itself and, very generously, to transfer the foundation’s capital to the SPK. This opened up a new and highly promising perspective. A start was made on sorting through the photographer’s estate, parts of which had never been published, in order to catalog it and make it accessible to the public at large. The underlying goal is simple: “We want our large-scale catalog project to keep the memory of Abisag Tüllmann alive and make her better known,” explains Christina Stehr, the deputy director of the bpk picture agency.

But how do you make such a large volume of work accessible? By digitizing all of the contact sheets. And by employing people to inspect this wealth of material, to photograph and catalog Tüllmann’s original prints, and to document their condition. Selected images are then recorded individually, which involves digitizing them and giving them keywords. People today may find it hard to imagine that a photo of this kind, back in the age of analog photography, was the result of time-consuming manual work, and that the image existed in different forms: the negative, the original print, a later print (perhaps made by someone else), and finally the image printed in the newspaper. It wasn’t just the subject and the content that made a great picture, but also – crucially – the fine-tuning of the image by the photographer during the production process. Tüllmann spent many hours enlarging photos in her darkroom in order to get them exactly how she wanted them. At the end of it, her own unmistakable signature was apparent in the style of each print. As Martha Caspers, formerly the curator of the Frankfurt Historical Museum, has said, “Abisag Tüllmann didn’t depict reality, she shaped it.” To do justice to this aspect of her oeuvre, to take into account the material quality of her photos, to show the context of their creation, and finally to describe how they were used and received: those were the challenges facing the archivists at the bpk picture agency.

Links for Additional Information

If you browse its new website bpk-archive.de/tuellmann/ you can see how well they have succeeded. The images and contents are clearly organized under various main headings: “The person,” “The work,” “The estate.” The division into thirty themed portfolios makes it easy to find a particular picture and to download it. It’s also fun to run the magnifying glass over the contact sheets on screen, so you can see Tüllmann’s own markings and handwritten notes, read the information in the mouseover and, if a particular picture awakens your interest, find out the date and place where it was taken, even the print’s dimensions and material: for example, gelatin silver on baryta paper. There is also detailed secondary information about each print, regarding the photographer’s stamp, any damage, and labeling. All of it is important: “because research is increasingly focusing on the object character of historical photography,” explains Stehr. Conventionally, the photograph has been seen as an image that is also a historical source, as a contemporary document that supplements textual sources. The other perspective sees the photograph as a materially manifesting object. Both aspects are given due consideration in the bpk picture agency’s Abisag Tüllmann project.

It has thus become a pilot project, a model for further projects – and a test of what it is possible to achieve. Like so many archives, museums, and libraries, the bpk picture archive is faced with the question of how best to safeguard, record, and make accessible the photographic estates that have been bequeathed or transferred to it. In addition to selecting sample images, this includes digitally producing the finding aids for the original material, step by step. “With this, we want to raise our profile as an institution for the safe-keeping of estates,” says Stehr. That requires a proper digital basic inventory, with the goal of facilitating further research and strengthening existing cooperation with other institutions. Abisag Tüllmann’s work is just the beginning – and a particularly enchanting one.

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