20th anniversary of the opening and subsequent fall of the Berlin Wall.
Tomorrow will be the 20th anniversary of the fall–or opening–of the Berlin Wall. I am here in Berlin to do a last round of photographs of the subject I’ve come back to over and over since 1985. There are thousands of people milling the streets along the trace of the Wall in the center of the city, most there to see the 1000+ painted dominos that will fall symbolically tomorrow evening.
The crush of people makes it difficult for me with my 4×5 camera, but I jumped into the crowd today with some good results, I think. Tomorrow, I don’t expect to get anywhere near the main event, and will work the periphery of the crowd.
The anniversary celebration is turning into a mega media event dominated by German TV, which will follow the fall of the dominos from moving cameras running along wires above the street. There will be celebrities galore, music performances, and various side events that I am just beginning to find out about. I believe Hilary Clinton is in town for a speech.
It is also an orgy of German kitsch and commercialism. Giant screens are mounted along the route of the dominos, and during the afternoon I viewed, among other things, an extended tribute to the carmaker Audi, and a video performance of an incredibly sappy ballad “One World, One Heart,” sung by Eleni. The last time I was in Berlin was during the run up to the World Cup soccer tournament, and there was a similar “we have arrived” vibe to things. I don’t begrudge Germans the opportunity to celebrate–but in so many ways this celebration goes beyond the reunification of Germany. The fall of the Wall signaled the end of communism, and was ultimately a triumph of freedom over tyranny. You may insert cynical comment here ___.
Imagine, if you can, what it’s like using a 4×5 view camera in the midst of literally thousands of hand held digital cameras. I stand out. Lots of people make comments or stop to chat–always friendly of course. I butcher some German, they butcher some English, and it’s all great fun. It could be intimidating, so many cameras, and so many serious expensive ones. But I’ve been at this game for a long time now, and I trust my instincts.
Some tourists listen to audio commentary coming from the pylon marking a point along the path of the former Wall. Until a short time ago there was little help provided if you wanted to trace the Wall’s path. Now, the 20 year old vanished Wall seems more real than ever, an integral part of the historical palimpsest that draws visitors to the city.
I’ve been busy lately. A number of assignments after a barren winter and spring. I get an email from the publisher of the Lost Border–this has been a particularly brutal year for the bookselling and publishing industries…
Basically they are telling me that my book is being remaindered–conveniently timed to the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Brilliant marketing strategy. Give the books away at the moment when interest in the subject will be at its peak.
Speeding through the city on a moving train. I am pleased, however, to contribute some of my Iron Curtain photographs to a literary project timed to the 20th anniversary of the end of the Wall, a book titled The Wall in my Head.
The Wall in My Head combines work from the generation of writers and artists who witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain firsthand with the impressions and reflections of those who grew up in its wake and whose work, childhoods, and memories are all colored by the long shadow that it cast. The Wall in My Head provides a unique view into the change, optimism, and confusion that came with 1989 and examines how each of these has weathered the twenty years since that fateful year.
More on this later. Here is the book’s website.
Berlin: In From the Cold (click for book website)
This November being the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin Wall, I have put together a new book focused exclusively on my pictures of Berlin. My earlier book, The Lost Border, included many photographs of the Wall, but its focus was not primarily on Berlin, a city I have returned to repeatedly over the years. There is some overlap between the two books, but 2/3 of the images are new.
Before the Wall came down, I also made a number of images of East Berlin, which have never been seen. In from the Cold includes a dozen of these eerie images of a place seemingly frozen in time. After the Wall came down, I moved off of the border zone to some extent, photographing historical sites that resonated with the rest of my project.
This is a Blurb book, which means it will be printed only on demand. Perhaps, there will be a commercial version of the book eventually, but not for now. The entire book is viewable on the Blurb website, which you are invited to browse through. It’s an expensive book, but if you choose to purchase it, you will own a unique piece of history, and a very limited production book worth collecting.
I have entered Berlin: In From the Cold in the Photography.Book.Now contest sponsored by Blurb. Please feel free to leave comments on the Blurb website, and click the vote button there to show your support.
As I wrote in an earlier post, ground zero (the World Trade Center site) reminds me of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin during the great wave of construction that occurred in the 1990s after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Although the circumstances leading to the two rebuilding efforts are obviously different, both were and are of intense interest to the public.
The reclamation of Potsdamer Platz was not just about the unification of Germany. It represented a new beginning reaching back to the zero hour (Stunde Null) at the end of World War II with its landscape of destruction. This no man’s land at the center of the city lay in limbo through the Cold War years, bisected by the Wall, and symbolized the unreconciled issues concerning the destiny of Germany and Europe, the Holocaust, and the role of Berlin as the historical metropolis at the crossroads of east and west.
The destruction of the World Trade Center and the death of nearly 3,000, while uniquely horrific, pales in comparison to the losses of World War II. Nevertheless, it created a trauma in human and political terms that cannot be underestimated for New York and the rest of the world.
In both Berlin and New York, the erasure of important symbols led to an immediate desire to rebuild. I won’t debate here the merits of the impulse to reclaim the image of the Twin Towers, or the wish of some to treat all of the WTC site as hallowed, therefore untouchable, ground. But there can be little doubt, that the public favored some combination of memorialization and the restoration of a heroic icon on the city’s skyline. With great fanfare a plan was selected, and despite all the compromises–some crippling–construction is now taking place. In fact, WTC 7 has aleady been rebuilt, an elegant glass tower, hovering over a vast chaotic tableau of yet unrealized plans.
In Berlin millions came to witness the rebuilding of Potsdamer Platz, and participate in the debate surrounding the plans of the architects who became household names in Germany and abroad. Many of the architects who were active at that time in Berlin–Libeskind, Piano, Rogers, Foster, Calatrava–are now similarly employed in New York affirming a post-9/11 recognition of the role of architecture in civic life.
The public’s passion for the rebuilding of Potsdamer Platz was properly understood in Berlin, and a temporary structure was erected in the midst of the site housing the models, drawings, and videos. The InfoBox, as it was called, also featured an elevated deck for surveying the surrounding urban forest of construction cranes. The InfoBox became the destination for the droves of tourists who otherwise would have wandered aimlessly about the site looking for views while trying to make sense of what was going on.
This, alas, is the present situation at ground zero in New York.
To be continued…
I read this morning in the New York Times that former East German spymaster Markus Wolf died yesterday, 17 years to the day of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wolf epitomized the romantic image of the Cold War spy, especially as portrayed in John Le Carré’s novels. While the Cold War was commonly seen as an epic battle between good and evil, Wolf occupied the shadowy realm of moral ambiguity. He and his counterparts in the West played a game, albeit a dangerous one, of spy vs. spy. Huge bureaucracies on both sides of the Iron Curtain jockeyed for advantage using shreds of information–the fact and fiction culled from wiretaps, satellite photographs, and undercover agents.
It is important today to remember that despite all the detail of information gathered and analyzed, the CIA and other intelligence agencies failed to foresee the end of the Cold War before it all unraveled in 1989 with the opening of the Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union. The spies got it wrong then, just as they got it wrong recently in the runup to the war in Iraq. In the end, the intricacies of the game tend to obscure clear facts on the ground, and the prism of politics distorts and corrupts.
Lenin bust at the Soviet embassy, Berlin, 1990 (4×5 film)
When I photographed the landscape of the Iron Curtain back in the ’80s I sensed that the Cold War was reaching its denouement, though I had no idea that it would end so quickly. Over the course of a lifetime one has moments of prescience that are often not acted upon and go wasted. This was one time I seized the moment and stayed with it as history unfolded.
My photographs of the Iron Curtain can be found here. (website)
A song I wrote about spies at the end of the Cold War can be listened to here. (mp3)
And another about the fall of the Soviet Union is here. (mp3)