Christine Matthäi – The Light of Innocence: On Playfulness, Trees and Growing up in the former East Germany
There is a sense of freedom and longing in the photography of Christine Matthäi. Whether her subject is flowers, trees or children emerging from a shadowy pool of water, Matthäi gives her viewers an escape from the noise of hard lines into an enchanted and sensual world where light and shadow merge seamlessly. And silence reigns.
Matthäi grew up in a small town near Dresden in former East Germany behind the Iron Curtain, the oldest of three sisters. As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming both a super athlete and a medical doctor. Her mother, a school teacher, died at a young age, after which Matthäi and her sisters lived under the care of their father who worked as the head of the local train station. By the time she was in her teens, Matthäi knew she wanted to leave East Germany.
“The thought of escape never left my mind,” Matthäi recalls of her native country, where from an early age she was encouraged to spy on her parent’s conversations and during her summer vacations, she was required to attend a “pre-military” camp.
At the age of 23, Matthäi found herself in the trunk of a car headed to West Germany where she would remain for the next few years. She had paid 30,000 Deutsch Marks (DM) to orchestrate her escape (non-refundable in case of failure) and later had to pay back relatives in West Germany who had advanced her the funds. After her escape, she would work with the same organization (the name of which Matthäi prefers to keep anonymous) to help others escape the German Democratic Republic (GDR).
Before she had left East Germany, Matthäi studied textile engineering and design at the Fashion Institute in East Berlin. In the 1980s, the young photographer moved from Berlin to New York City, where she worked as a photographer’s assistant and later served as a photo correspondent for foreign magazines. She studied both film (New York Film Academy) and took courses in photography (Parsons School of Design).
Describing that time of her life, Matthäi explains,”I felt the need to learn more and educate myself while I was holding my full time job. Sometimes I used my vacation time to take different courses. My time at the Film Institute was one of the most exciting times I ever had. It was very creative and challenging with no need for sleep. I felt rejuvenated simply by the experience.”
“When I am creative I often get lost in that playful realm of childhood, where I forget time and space. Creativity fuels me with energy and passion.” says Matthäi.
That lively, but somehow quiet playfulness stands out in Matthai’s newer series, “The Light of Innocence,” a collection of photographs of children swimming naked. Open, flowing and alive, the images draw the viewer into a world where she or he might feel the ease of water inside of themselves, a space of floating and hour-melting daydreams.
“I was taking pictures of children playing nude in the pool. They were so natural and unaware of their behavior and appearances and not conditioned yet by societal norms and cultural pressure. I was trying to communicate my perception of innocence by outlining this almost spiritual experience in light, which to me symbolizes supreme power and the essence of god.”
WRR: When did you take your first photograph?
As a child I used my father’s camera, a model EXA, which he bought in 1956 .
WRR: Tell me a bit about growing up in the former East Germany?
I grew up in former East Germany in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
In school, it was mandatory for all pupils to join first the Young Pioneers and later the Free German Youth Organization. We were advised to spy on our parents, report to our school teachers about the conversations our parents had and inform them about the radio stations our parents were listening to. We grew up with the pictures of Lenin, Stalin, Marx, Engels, Mao, Ulbricht, Honecker and Castro adorning the walls in each class room.
There were no magazines and newspapers available, except the classic Russian and German literature which were taught and interpreted with a Communist twist. Our bible was the Communist Manifesto; and yes, there was only one magazine available in the entire state, its title DAS MAGAZIN (THE MAGAZINE.)
We were trained from early on in all sorts of sports as well as first aid and as future soldiers in pre-military camps during our summer vacations. In my early teens I decided that I did not want to live in East Germany. Later, I escaped and helped many others to escape.
WRR: Can you tell me the story behind the series, TREES. The viewer really feels that they are walking in the thick of the forest. What imagery did you hope to evoke? Where did you shoot this series?
TREES always had some magic for me. From an early age, my father would take me skiing in the mountains of East Germany. To me, the trees represent an impenetrable wall with all sorts of secrets and hidden creatures. The trick is to discover those secrets within the forest’s thickness and at the same time, avoid getting lost. Perhaps I tried to recapture these childhood feelings in some of my images. I believe that nature will teach us so long as we are willing and open to see and listen. Trees are essential for us, they have an aura of holiness and dignity around them. In their strength, they rest within themselves in stillness while being exposed to all sorts of storms and changes. They just are.
I photographed the series “TREES” in different locations in Germany and Shelter Island.
WRR: Your photos transform the material world and have a magical quality. How do you experience the drive to create?
The drive to create comes from an inner need to generate ideas, examine and communicate personal values. Creativity comes from my imagination, from that still-point in myself where I foster ideas, from introspection.
WRR: Your flowers look unbelievably velvety soft. I almost wanted to touch them. How do you convey softness given the concrete nature of photography?
I must have been in a sensual mood when I softened my rose images in Photoshop.
WRR: You bring a spiritual sensibility to all of your photos. Can you talk about this a little bit? Where do you feel that drive most profoundly?
Several years ago my life had been turned upside down, which put me emotionally on the brink of despair. After living in NYC for more then 20 years I packed my bag and traveled and lived on some Caribbean Islands. Being there in the splendor of nature (deriving from the Latin word natura meaning birth or character) with very few distractions, I eventually experienced stillness and with the help of nature and some extraordinary friends, my soul slowly healed. With that, came the rediscovery of my talents and passion for photography because I listened and opened up to my surroundings, letting them in, so to speak, which led me into what I am at this moment.
WRR: How does nature inform your philosophy on photography?
Photography is painting the images I capture with light and then playing with and altering them.
I harvest my images mostly in nature. It is there where I discover new ideas, which I later arrange in light and composition.
WRR: Your art work is now collected all over the world. How and where do you see your photographs evolving?
I hope to stay on the path I have chosen which is following my internal call to my very own adventure which is reflected in my work.
In 2006, Kimberly Nagy founded Wild River Review with Joy E. Stocke; and in 2009, they founded Wild River Consulting & Publishing, LLC. With more than twenty years in the field of publishing, Nagy specializes in market outreach and digital media strategies as well as crafting timeless articles and interviews. She edits many of the writers who appear in the pages of Wild River Review, as well as clients from around the world.
Kimberly Nagy is a poet, professional writer, and dedicated reader who has interviewed a number of leading thinkers, including Academy-Award winning filmmaker, Pamela Tanner Boll, MacArthur Genius Award-winning Edwidge Danticat, historian James McPherson, playwright Emily Mann, biologist and novelist, Sunetra Gupta and philosopher Alain de Botton.
Nagy is an author, editor and professional storyteller. She received her BA in history at Rider University where she was influenced by professors who stressed works of literature alongside dates and historical facts–as well as the importance of including the perspectives of women and minorities in the historical record. During a period in which she fell in love with writing and research, Nagy wrote an award-winning paper about the suppression of free speech during World War I, and which featured early 20th century feminist and civil rights leader, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Nagy continued her graduate studies at University of Connecticut, Storrs, where she studied with Dr. Karen Kupperman, an expert in early contact between Native Americans and the first European settlers. Nagy wrote her Masters thesis, focusing on the work of the first woman to be accepted into the Connecticut Historical Society as well as literary descriptions of Native Americans in Connecticut during the 19th century. Nagy has extensive background and interest in anthropological, oral history and cultural research.
After graduate school, Nagy applied her academic expertise to a career in publishing, in which she worked for two of the world’s foremost publishers—Princeton University Press and W.W. Norton—as well as at Thomson, Institutional Investor Magazine, Routledge UK, and Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic.
Kimberly Nagy in this Edition
AIRMAIL – LETTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD
AIRMAIL – VOICE FROM SYRIA
ARTS – ART
ARTS – FILM REVIEWS
ARTS – MUSIC
ARTS – PHOTOGRAPHY
The Triple Goddess Trials: Fire in the Head: Brigit’s Mysterious Spark
The Triple Goddess Trials: Introduction
The Triple Goddess Trials – Meeting Virginia Woolf at the Strand
The Triple Goddess Trials: Me and Medusa
The Triple Goddess Trials: Aphrodite and the Lightbulb Factory
The Triple Goddess Trials: Goddess of Milk and Honey
The Triple Goddess Trials: Kali’s Ancient Love Song
ASHLEY – Renee Ashley: A Voice Answering a Voice
BELLI – Giocanda Belli – The Page is My Home
BOLL – Pamela Tanner Boll: Dangerous Women: An Interview with Academy Award Winner Pamela Tanner Boll
DANTICAT – Create Dangerously- A Conversation with Edwidge Danticat
CHARBONNEAU – A Cruise Along the Inside Track: With Le Mobile’s Sound Recording Legend Guy Charbonneau
de BOTTON – The Art of Connection: A Conversation with Alain de Botton
GUPTA – Suneptra Gupta – The Elements of Style: The Novelist and Biologist Discusses Metaphor and Science
HANDAL – Nathalie Handal – Love and Strange Horses
KHWAJA – Waqas Khwaja: What a Difference a Word Makes
MAURO: New World Monkeys: An Interview with Nancy Mauro
MORGANSing, Live, & Love Like You Mean It: An Interview with Bertha Morgan
MOSS – Practical Mystic–Robert Moss: On Book Families, Jung and How Dreams Can Save Your Soul
OGLINE – BEN FRANKLIN.COM: Author & Illustrator Tim Ogline explains why Ben Franklin would be a technology evangelist today
OLSEN – Greg Olsen – Reaching for the Stars: Scientist, Entrepreneur and Space Traveler
PALYA – Beata Palya – The Secret World of Songs
SCHIMMEL – Moonlight Science: A Conversation with Molecular Biologist and Entrepreneur, Paul Schimmel
SHORS – Journey into the Male & Female Brain: An Interview with Tracey Shors
von MOLTKE and SIMMS – Dorothy von Moltke and Cliff Simms: Why Independent Bookstores Matter, Part I
WARD – On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part One, and
On the Rocks: Global Warming and the Rock and Fossil Record – An Interview with Peter Ward, Part Two
WILKES – Labor of Love: An Interview With Architect Kevin Wilkes
LITERATURE – MEMOIR
LITERATURE – POETRY
LIVE FROM THE NYPL
Fountain of Curiosity: Paul Holdengraber on Attention, Tension and Stretching the Limits of Conversation at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library at 100: From the Stacks to the Streets
Paul Holdengraber: The Afterlife of Conversation
That Email Changed My Life: Rolex Arts Initiative. Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet Tracy K. Smith Celebrates Rolex Arts Initiative
First Editions / Second Thoughts — Defending Writers: PEN and Christie’s Raise One Million Dollars to Support Freedom of Expression
ON AFRICA: May 4 to May 10 — Behind the Scenes with Director Jakab Orsos: Co-curated by Award-Winning Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Page is My Home: Giaconda Belli – Nicaraguan Poet, Writer and Public Intellectual
Georgian Writer David Dephy’s Second Skin
The Power of Conversation: David Grossman and Nadine Gordimer – The Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture
NEW FROM WILD RIVER BOOKS – Brief Eulogies at Roadside Shrines
Daring Collaborations: Rolex and LIVE from the NYPL at the New York Public Library
Wild River Books Announces the Stoutsburg Cemetery Project: The Untold Stories of an African American Burial Ground in New Jersey
Wild River Books: Surprise Encounters by Scott McVay
Wild River Review and Minerva’s Bed & Breakfast Presents – “BITTER” Writing in a Weekend: How to Write About the Things We Can’t Change
ALLEN – Quarks, Parks, and Science in Everyday Life: Filmmaker Chris Allen’s Documentary Where Art Meets Science in a Vacant Lot
HOLT – Rush Holt: An Interview with Rush Holt
MANN – Boundless Theater: An Interview with Emily Mann
Keeping Time: A Conversation with Historian James McPherson