Every eye forms its own beauty

Translated from the article by Freddy Langer:
FAZ – Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Saturday, October 21st, 2017 * Nr.245 * page 13

At the table with Dali, with Romy on the carpet, Uschi Obermaier in front of his lens: Werner Bokelberg created photos that became icons. Tomorrow he turns 80. We visited.

Werner Bokelberg turns eighty this Sunday. One of Germany's greatest photo journalists and for a time the worlds most published photographer. Anyone who grew up in the sixties and seventies saw large parts of the world through his eyes, and was aided in socializing their passions to a not inconsiderable degree through his pictures. Bokelberg spread glamour through the magazine pages of "Constanze" and the "Film Revue", in "Freundin" and "Stern".

And he designed a new kind of advertising in which, humor and eroticism blended together. His angelic young women for MM who, with a bottle of champagne in their hands, are being cheeky while sliding down a staircase railing, or sassy while balancing on a cloud. This types of images have been shining bright for many years from the final pages of many magazines; his black-and-white images of athletic ladies rear view, for John Player Special, hung on the wall of those who did not know how to snatch a Pirelli calendar. These were campaigns that Bokelberg developed. Not replicating the sketches of an Art Director. Back then he already had "Every eye forms its own beauty" written on his letterhead. And the Advertising Agencies handed him the work challenging for Bokel to prove his mantra.

Werner Bokelberg turns eighty. The right time for an introspection. Long overdue is a book that illustrates his life’s work! "A what?" asks Bokelberg, his feet on the desk, leaning back comfortably in a chair, behind him darkened eight-meter-high windowpanes, which give view to a huge, but sparsely planted backyard surrounded by high walls. His house in the Eimsbüttel district of Hamburg evokes the impression of a bunker, having a deterring brickfacade facing the street with three windows as narrow as loopholes. "An illustrated book", asks Werner Bokelberg. He can not resist a grin and shakes his head, his snow-white lion's mane slightly shakes. "What's that for?" He has taken five pictures in his life, he believes, that outlasted time. No, I hope, he says, corrects himself. Then he lists them: "Picasso." Pause. "Dalí." Longer break. "Uschi Obermaier, of course." He's coming to a halt again. "The others I can not remember anymore," he says finally, and that three were also enough. Photography is a perishable good.

The way he says it, it does not sound like modesty, not even false modesty. What lies behind this is the arrogance of an artist who demands no less from himself and others than perfection. One day, the magazine "Stern", for which he worked as an editorial photographer for more than ten years across the world, dropped his entire picture archive at his front door. Bokel threw most of it into the waste. “Those images had particular function at the time. Nobody needs them anymore."

This may bear witness to the wisdom of age, but becoming soft in age is not an option to him. What happens to photography now , he simply calls it cruel. Millions of new pictures on Instagram every day make him sick. And he consoles himself with the thought that no one will be able to bear this for the long run. "All this," he predicts, "will be over one imminent day. All of a sudden. As if somebody is pulling out the plug.“

Bokelberg started taking pictures early. At sixteen the first cover picture: Christine Kaufmann. Teen magazine „Bravo“ called him a "star of tomorrow," before age twenty. He was the first generation of photographers for whom almost nothing was impossible. Once he had been living among the homeless for four or five days, secretly photographing it for the "Neue Illustrierte". Another time Bokel took picture of a semi nude Ira von Fürstenberg. It sounds a bit like stolen from the script of "Blow-Up". But the pictures are there. And to each of them Bokel has its story. For example, the meeting with Dalí 1965 in Paris. You can take a picture of me now, strolling through the city, stealing something, the artist offered, or you visit me in Spain - only condition: "Bring a pretty blonde along with you!" Bokelberg decided for the Danish actress Lotte Tarp, with whom Dalí celebrated an eccentric happening for days, even on the dining table. "There was not much to do", says Bokelberg. "I only had to take pictures." At the end, the wonderful picture book "DaDaDali" was created. The photographer, says Bokelberg, should give a stage to the person he photographs, but not instructions. He had the perfect counterpart in Romy Schneider. In late autumn 1964 he visited her in Paris. "I want to go back to Germany", the multi-part reportage in "Stern" would be called later. No small sensation after fleeing to France five years earlier to escape the cliché of Sissi. But first, Germany should see how far she has come - and how she lived: in a salon with lots of marble, velvet-covered furniture, silver chandeliers, golden knick-knacks, and a heavy Persian rug. She was ready to be photographed as she'd never been before, she let Bokelberg know, and then the ideas just spilled out of her. Probably thirty times during the afternoon she changed clothes. Sometimes she danced, sometimes she sobbed unrestrainedly real tears. Constantly she slipped into new roles. But she always conveyed the intensity of those who want to try to their limits - more than that: she crossed those limits. But this intensity, even lust, was never directed at him, says Bokelberg, but only to the camera. He has made more than three and a half thousand shots that afternoon. "One of these pictures," says Bokelberg, "could be the fourth in the series." As if that comes to his mind just now.

And Uschi Obermaier? That does not seem to have been any different. He had visited her in the shared apartment with Rainer Langhans and a number of others. Taking off her sweater was her idea. Icons are easily created when you provide a stage. No other image of the 1968 encompasses its generations joy of life, desire for free love, and the mockery of the past. But Bokelberg could not take the commune life seriously. This "wild accumulation of sheets" had instantly made him realize that history would not be written there. And then he gets quiet for a moment. No, he does not like to talk about sixty-eight. The movement had split Germany, hardened the fronts, and looking back, one could not look at them without adding the thought of terror. Perhaps in there lays the magic of the Obermaier portrait: that it still seems to be filled with a moment of innocence. Enough, says Bokelberg.

In the middle of the seventies he began to study the history of photography. He first discovered his liking for daguerreotypes, and with a groundbreaking cover story in "Stern", made this earliest photo technology known for the first time ever beyond the specialist circles. Then he devoted himself to the masters of modernity - with a momentous consequence: He realized for himself that there were better photographers than him, that generally in every genre there is one particular photographer who might the best; most of whom have not been surpassed in a hundred years or more. At the same time, he understood that his sharp eye would help him to collect the best of the best - at a time when the art market was still less serious about collecting photography than it is today. The catalog of his collection he names “Happy Birthday Photography” in 1989. It is widely seen as a canon of Photography. He called it "an opportunity to rest the eye", but flipping through the pages of the catalog today makes everyone‘s heart beat faster. This book is all one needs to grasp the manifold possibilities of the medium, it reveals magic between fairytale sceneries and new matter of fact precision. The world has possibly never seen a more beautiful collection. The Sultan of Qatar bought it from him and promised to build an own museum for it, but then died unexpectedly. Since then, the collection of prints has been in a bonded warehouse.

And now? Now Bokelberg, who has been called "the truffle pig of the museums" on occasion, is collecting once again : Pictures of Parisian shops and factories as well as their owners from the beginning of the twentieth century. He has already collected hundreds of cartes photos. Dozens of them are hanging in large prints on his walls. Not yet detected by other collectors, he has raised a treasure, opening a world, which, at best, had only been known from Proust's "In Search of Lost Time." "There are still many questions open at this age," says Werner Bokelberg quite abruptly. "One can not decide between age and illness." And this old gentleman, who makes such a jolly impression, slowly rises from the chair. On the way to the door, we pass a gallery of his favorite pictures. All black and white. All framed in black. And suddenly one understands what he was concerned about all his life: beauty, simply beauty! On Sunday he turns eighty: Happy Birthday, Werner Bokelberg.

Foto: Bertold Fabricius