A Lifetime of Queerness Captured in Photos

In 1971, Rüdiger Trautsch was a graphic design student with two main interests: photography, and West Germany’s just-born gay rights movement. By the time of his tragic death in 2021, he was Germany’s most revered – and perhaps most beloved – photographer of queer subjects. This summer, Berlin’s Schwules Museum hosts a tender and touching retrospective on the late photographer’s expansive career entitled “Photography as a Way of Life. Rüdiger Trautsch: 50 years of pictures” (16 June – 18 September 2023). The exhibition follows him from his humble beginnings to the dancefloors of Hamburg’s legendary house clubs to the homes of his closest friends and tracing not only the lifetime of a remarkable man, but the lifetime-so-far of the remarkable communities he photographed, too.


Rüdiger Trautsch, “FRONT Club Hamburg” (1983), courtesy of the artist and Schwules Museum.

The exhibition’s starting point is a dissertation project that a young Rüdiger Trautsch composed for a photography course at Hamburg’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1981, entitled “Hardly anybody made it out of love.” This was not Trautsch’s first flirtation with photography – his camera had joined him as a comrade to the wave of gay rights protests that erupted in Germany after the 1969 decriminalisation of homosexuality, with some of these photos on display here too – however marked the crystallisation of a documentary hobby into a professional career. The project, centred around the historic St. Georg district of Hamburg, follows the life of Reinhard, an elderly gay man who worked in a lady’s clothing store by day and as a drag performer by night.

Rüdiger Trautsch, “Aus Liebe hat es kaum keiner gaten” (1980), courtesy of the artist and Schwules Museum.

After graduating from the Academy of Fine Arts, Trautsch set up a small photography studio with his partner in Hamburg. The early ‘80s produced some of Trautsch’s finest work, centred on the city’s legendary FRONT nightclub which is credited as the birthplace of German house music and the soul of the city’s gay scene. Black-and-white photos show sweaty torsos and muscled arms melting into one another and artfully-dressed men kissing against pulsating basement walls, a riotous celebration of queer joy. This also marked Trautsch’s expansion into the international scene, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, and Divine ranking among just some of his muses in this period.

Rüdiger Trautsch, “FRONT Club Hamburg” (1983), courtesy of the artist, Klaus Stockhausen and, Boris Dlugoch.

However, it is not just the hulky hedonism of underground dancefloors and leather festivals that Trautsch so beautifully captured. It is queerness’s quieter moments too, such as his “Couples” series, in which he took his camera to the homes of his friends and photographed them in charismatic portraiture. Some of the couples are clearly camera-ready, others seem shy, but this diversity of subjects – including some of Trautsch’s few photos of queer women – only adds to the intimacy and air of authenticity that these stills resonate.

“Photography as a Way of Life. Rüdiger Trautsch: 50 years of pictures” is a diverse and comprehensive history of half-a-century of gay rights and living in Germany told through the astute and emphatic eyes of one exceptional man and is one of the best celebrations of queer art currently showing in Europe. If you find yourself in Berlin this month, make sure to visit.

Rüdiger Trautsch, “Couples – Roland and Wolfgang” (2011), courtesy of the artist and Schwules Museum.

“Photography as a Way of Life. Rüdiger Trautsch: 50 years of pictures” is running at the Schwules Museum in Berlin from the 16th of June to the 18th of September. More details about visiting the museum can be found here. It is curated by Peter Rehberg, alongside assistant curators Dragan Simevic and Jessica Walter.

Article by Jude Jones.

Jude Jones is a staff writer at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA.

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