News | RTL Group | Berlin/Munich, 05/02/2023

‘The Visual Memory Of The Federal Republic Of Germany’

The “Stern” magazine photo archive is one of the most significant photo collections in Germany. In 2019, Gruner + Jahr transferred the archive to the Bavarian State Library in Munich, which then began digitizing the analog images. Around 320,000 photos from more than 1,300 “Stern” articles are already available online at this time.

The hijacking of the Lufthansa plane “Landshut” and the murder of the President of the German Employers’ Association Hanns-Martin Schleyer in 1977, the visit of U.S. President Ronald Reagan to West Berlin in 1987, or the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 are some of the historic moments that have burned themselves deeply into the collective memory of Germans. For decades, “Stern” magazine has documented these and many other significant moments in Germany and around the world, primarily through its pictures. The analog photos taken for “Stern” between 1948 and 2001 were collected by the magazine in its photo archive, which comprises a total of almost 16 million negatives, slides and prints. In 2018, Gruner + Jahr had donated the famous photo collection to the Bavarian State Library (BSB) to make it accessible to the public and to secure its long-term existence. On April 25, the library’s director general, Klaus Ceynowa, gave a presentation on how far the BSB has already progressed on this path to the participants of the Institute of Contemporary History’s first symposium on the history of “Stern.” As reported, around 50 historians and journalists accepted the invitation to attend the conference at Bertelsmann Unter den Linden 1 in Berlin.

“The ‘Stern’ photo archive is the visual memory of the Federal Republic of Germany,” said Klaus Ceynowa, describing the collection’s significance, adding that it also reflects world political events in the second half of the 20th century and is a unique document of photojournalism. “‘Stern’ was a pioneer of visual documentation in Germany; visuality was key to its concept,” says Ceynowa, who sees the magazine on a par with the famous American magazine “Life” in this respect. “Stern’s” photography is distinguished not only by the topicality and quality of the pictures, but above all by unconventional, sensational photos that amaze the viewer with unusual perspectives. According to Ceynowa, the magazine followed the lead of its founder and long-time editor-in-chief Henri Nannen, who issued the edict that “Stern” should purposely not publish the pictures that everyone else publishes.

While other major magazines such as “Der Spiegel” often used freelance photographers, Ceynowa says, “Stern” mainly employed permanent photographers. These include well-known names such as Volker Hinz, Robert Lebeck, Perry Kretz, Rolf Gillhausen, Jay Ullal, Fred Ihrt, Harald Schmitt and Jürgen Gebhardt. “So it could happen that a photographer was sent to South America, Asia, or the U.S. for a report spanning several weeks,” reports Ceynowa. Thanks to lavish expense budgets and abundant sales and advertising revenues, this was no problem in the 1960s and 1970s.

Soon after being donated to the Bavarian State Library, the “Stern” photo archive moved from Hamburg to Munich in the summer of 2019. Before the library could begin digitizing the photos and making them publicly available, the complex issue of usage rights first had to be resolved. In the case of “Stern,” Ceynowa says, these rights automatically reverted to the photographers after a few years. So it was a great advantage that “Stern” employed its photographers on a permanent basis and that the number of rights holders was therefore still manageable. The Bavarian State Library went on to conclude user agreements with most of them, or their descendants, which also include rights for public use. In fact, additional private photo collections of former “Stern” photographers were added to the archive in 2019 and 2020 in this way.

Once the matter of rights had been resolved, and following a Europe-wide call for tenders, in 2021 the BSB began the mammoth task of digitizing the archives, working with three service providers to date. The library already had several years of experience in this area, thanks in part to a cooperation with Google, and therefore saw itself in a position to tackle the complicated and expensive project of mass digitization. At the end of 2021, the first phase of the project began, comprising three million negatives taken between 1972 and 2001, the rights to which have been cleared. Together with the associated contact sheets, they will be digitized and made accessible online by mid-2025. Since the start of the project, some 16,000 negatives have been digitized every week; by mid-April of this year, the number of digitized negatives had already reached about one million. To provide a better overview, the images are linked/assigned to the “Stern” reports for which they were taken at the time.

In February of this year, the Bavarian State Library then took the next step and put the “Stern Photo Archive” portal online. It currently contains around 320,000 images belonging to 1,332 “Stern” reports, with more being added all the time. The reports already published come from 15 renowned, permanently employed “Stern” photographers. Each of them is briefly portrayed on the portal, and the respective reports are linked directly. A look behind the scenes of the work of the “Stern” picture editors is given by the contact sheets of the individual reports, which often contain handwritten markings/notes. A contact sheet groups several negatives from a given roll of film in the same size on one sheet. A “best of” filter allows for specifically displaying only the photographs marked on the contact sheet by the ‘Stern’ picture editors or the ‘Stern’ photographer. “For researchers and the public, the ‘Stern Photo Archive’ of the Bavarian State Library is a unique contemporary historical source of national and international importance,” concludes Director General Klaus Ceynowa.