Germany is in flux. After 15 years of re-unification, globalisation, EU expansion, zero growth, near record unemployment, and a deeply divided electorate, the Federal Republic finds itself for the first time in more than 30 years governed by a Grand Coalition of the centre-right Christian Democratic Union and the centre-left Social Democratic Party. That Angela Merkel of the CDU and Matthias Platzeck of the SPD, both academics from greater Brandenburg and politicians from the former German Democratic Republic, IE, East Germany, are trying to get the country moving again after defeating their Western party bosses in the run-up to the election has made for much soul-searching on a national level. Not surprisingly, “Heimat,” or homeland, is a staple theme of talk shows, movies, and any number of editorials and has become part of the national Zeitgeist. This introspection is addressed in timely fashion by a small, niche photo agency, the Berlin-based Ostkreuz. Founded in 1990 by seven of East Germany’s most prominent photojournalists and modelled on the structure of Magnum, Ostkreuz proudly takes its name from a major traffic crossing in the east part of Berlin. The agency has put together a book and travelling exhibition that addresses Germany and its self-image.

Deutschlandbilder or “Pictures of Germany” presents very different portfolios by the 17 current members of the agency in the context of its own 15-year anniversary. It is a remarkable take on contemporary Germany. On one hand, it represents a portrait of Germany, albeit deliberately not an all-encompassing one. On the other hand, it is a portrait of the agency and its photographers. With a grant from the Goethe Institute, the cultural arm of the Foreign Ministry, the portfolios were massaged into the frame of “Germany”. The exhibition will travel through Italy, France, India, and further afield over the next several years granting the show an extraordinary importance. With 17 subjective positions, it would be logical to expect a rather broad range of images. Yet such is the mood of Germany today that the look is largely dour and introspective.

Ostkreuz, as an agency, occupies a particular niche in the spectrum of photography agencies both in Germany proper and in the international scene. Famous, of course, for its archive of photographs of the former GDR, Ostkreuz photographers have addressed many themes of re-unification and changes in the east, especially the hollowing out of industry and the erasure of visual remnants of the country’s socialist past. Harald Hauswald put together a series from the 1980s and 90s depicting the massive changes effecting Berlin. Jordis Antonia Schlösser documents the human and environmental costs of the now collapsed soft-coal industry around Halle. Famed GDR fashion photographer Sibylle Bergemann’s “Fading Memories” details the ephemeral little things of everyday life in the GDR, wallpaper, bridges, commemorative toys and so on. Ute Mahler’s “New Oldies” is an ironic take on being elderly in Germany, a country with a rapidly aging population. Other works, by Wolfgang Müller, chronicle the uneasy situation of ethnic Germans moving from Russia to Germany. Dawin Meckel looks at the paradoxes of Germans still living in Namibia, the former colony of German South-West Africa. There are pictures of politicos politicking by Michael Tippel, children at play by Anne Schönharting, views of the North Sea by Thomas Meyer, and little bits of weirdness in Lynn Schröder’s “A Play.” One of the youngest photographers, Julian Röder, age 24, documented youth culture in a rather more optimistic light with his ironically titled portfolio, “81% were in love at least once.”

Yet it is in the pictures of Heinrich Völkel, “Germany’s Best,” and Wolfgang Bellwinkel, “Heimat II,” that the theme of Germany, per se, is most directly addressed. Völkel took up the topic of the national winners in a wide range of off-beat competitions – Best Belly Dancer, Best Soap-Box Car Builder, Best Cow Roper, Best Barbeque Griller, and Best Rescue Dog, won by Trümmer, naturally a German shepherd shown perched on a pile of Trümmel, or rubble, against a beautiful blue sky. This side of Germany presets a happy weirdness. Bellwinkel’s take is much more melancholy. His images of Sunday outings in the provinces, castles, suburbia, woods, and lakes are neither here nor there – which is his point exactly. As a journalist who has spent much of his time in Asia, Bellwinkel seems to be attempting to ground himself. His look at classic German themes such as Nature, so beloved by Caspar David Friedrich and the other Romantic painters and writers, seems very flat, distant even. It is a very cool look, if not exactly cold. The people in his pictures are strangely apart as though lost in their own thoughts.

It is also not unlike the work of another contemporary German photographer, Peter Bialobrzeski, whose own book is also entitled “Heimat.” Clearly, the Zeitgeist is stalking the photolabs of Berlin, Hamburg, and elsewhere in Germany. It also presents a picture of Ostkreuz itself.

Unlike larger agencies like Laif or Focus, Ostkreuz specialises far more in reportage and long-term picture stories in Germany and the new EU countries to the east. They are the go-to agency for things germane to German politics and supply content to a wide range of international magazines. The pictures seem remarkably lonely almost like lifestyle stock imagery without the life part. The country seems to be awaiting the next big thing, the landscapes of suburbia for the next Ikea or Aldi to fill the emptiness with happy loving couples in gemütlich little pink houses. With zero growth and a marginal birth rate those days seem remote. What’s odder is that imagery from other low growth, low birth countries like Italy, for example, seems to be livelier. The German Zeitgeist is not optimistic, and the pictures demonstrate this.

Ostkreuz director Betty Fink, herself a veteran of other German photo agencies, says of the book and exhibition that “it is rather sad” and shows a “distanced Romanticism … That there are so many sad pictures is a reflection through photography of what is there. We didn’t plan it that way, but that is what happened.” Deutschlandbilder is not a work of wildly optimistic vistas. The question is: is this look representative of Germany today as a whole or is it too pessimistic to be realistic? Deutschlandbilder represents 17 perspectives on 15 years of frustration, divided politics, and the failure to produce the “Blooming Landscapes” promised by Chancellor Helmut Kohl at the time of the re-unification in 1990. It is fair to say that it is hard to describe it with pretty pictures. Yet the last image in the book, Julian Röder’s swirl of students near Alexanderplatz in Berlin-Mitte, somehow gives the viewer the hope that things will pick up in the future.

Bill Kouwenhoven