When Herlinde Koelbl started her Becher-esque photographic series “Traces of Power” in 1989, Germany was a year away from its post-Cold War reunification, and Angela Merkel, now chancellor, was on the cusp of entering politics.
A year later, once Merkel had been elected to the German Parliament and Helmut Kohl named her minister for women and youth, Koelbl caught up with the rising star.
“Traces of Power” entailed taking two photos every year of a handful of major political figures in Germany: a facial portrait and a standing portrait. Koelbl has done this with Merkel since 1991. “I wanted to see how she changed on the outside and also on the inside, her spirit,” said Koelbl, speaking by phone from her office just outside Munich. “What happens when you stay in power? It is very hard on someone to stay in power.”
A quarter-century later, Merkel wields significant influence over international politics. Forbes has twice put her at No. 2 on its list of most powerful people, both times behind Russia’s Vladimir Putin. She is standing for reelection at the end of the summer, and she is seen not only as heading Germany but as the European Union’s de facto leader. She is a political role model for women worldwide.
In accompanying interviews that Koelbl conducted with each of her subjects, she gleaned details of inner transformations, while her portraits captured the outer. “Maybe I’ve just become more hardened,” Merkel told Koelbl early on, in 1998. “The exposure to so many extreme situations tends to harden a person. You have to develop survival strategies.”
However exposed and however meteoric her rise, Merkel wears almost the same shy grin in Koelbl’s annual photographs. It is a reminder that while some things change, others stay the same.
Below, Koelbl and I discuss her thoughts on Merkel, and how a portrait in black and white can bring a powerful politician’s personality into focus. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: First tell me, how did this all begin?
A: I met Merkel in 1990 or 1991, because at that time I’d started “Traces of Power.” I collected 15 people who had become high-ranking public officials, and I wanted to follow them to see how power changed them — physically but also mentally. [Then-Chancellor] Gerhard Schröder was also a part, and our foreign minister was, too. I told them that I will interview them and photograph them every year, for at least eight or maybe 10 years.
Q: How did Merkel change as a person over the years?
A: I think she learned a lot. She learned how to survive politics. And she got used to being public. If you’re a chancellor, it is one of the toughest jobs you can have — much harder than being a CEO. People are more concerned with everything you say, what you’re wearing — you’re always watched, especially women.
Politicians learn to wear a mask for the public, you know?
But Merkel’s style has stayed much the same. Trousers and a jacket, that’s it. She’s not like [British Prime Minister Theresa] May, in that way, who is very fashionable. That was never in Merkel’s interest. She never was vain, and she’s still not. She doesn’t display a big ego, like a lot of male leaders do — say Putin or [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or [President] Trump, whatever.
Q: Do you think she has a particularly German look?
A: I wouldn’t say so. I just think it is “un-vain.” She thinks what she wears should be practical.
Q: How did Merkel change in terms of being in front of the camera?
A: In the beginning, she was quite shy, and she told me that she didn’t know what to do with her hands. She just wasn’t used to being photographed — a little awkward. But over the years she got more comfortable. And now, of course, she knows that it is part of her profession, her role. But she’s not eager to be photographed.
I never asked her to pose. I wanted to see how her body language changed each year. Some years you can see that it really was a very tough year — you can see it on her face — and then another year she’ll look fresh again.
I always photograph in front of a white wall, with a simple chair, taking one portrait of the face and one of how she stands.
In the beginning, I thought about whether I should show the room in which the photos were taken. Should I include a table and chairs? Then I said, no, I’ll focus on the personality. That’s why the pictures are black and white — so you focus on the face and body language, and so you don’t say, “Ah, now she’s in a red dress, now she’s in a green dress,” and so on.
Q: When was the last time you were in touch with Merkel? The last published photo you took of hers was in 2008.
A: You know, I still take a picture of her every year, but I haven’t published the recent ones yet. That’ll happen later. [Laughs].