Category Archives: Iron Curtain

New York/Wall


Heinersdorf, Germany 1987 — from The Lost Border, The Landscape of the Iron Curtain
— © Brian Rose

The Dept. of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intends on issuing a solicitation in electronic format on or about March 6, 2017 for the design and build of several prototype wall structures in the vicinity of the United States border with Mexico.

 

Unsurprisingly, there are engineering firms and architects who are interested. One small architectural firm explains their willingness to participate:

To put it directly: we have never said that we are designing a wall. We are responding to the government’s solicitation for a new model of border infrastructure which we hope will provide a corrective to the privileging of iconicity, spectacle, and security at the border. (full text here)

Jake Matatyaou and Kyle Hovenkotter, JuneJuly, March 3, 2017
management@junejuly.co

 

New York/Borders

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The former Iron Curtain border, Germany, 1985 — © Brian Rose

It was fearsome thing up close, the walls and fences that divided Europe during the Cold War years. From a distance it sometimes appeared more benign — silvery ribbons of steel following the contours of the landscape. But the reality was plain — it was an apparatus created by autocratic governments for repression — and its dual purpose was to keep its own citizens imprisoned, and to limit the influence of western culture. Hundreds died trying to escape.

It was also a dangerous line in the sand between nuclear powers, and any incident along that line had the potential for triggering global catastrophe. I photographed the border in the 1980s, and I documented the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

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Mexican/American border 2016 — Photograph by Kirsten Luce  (New York Times article)

The border between the United States and Mexico can appear similar to the old Iron Curtain with miles of steel fencing snaking through the undulating desert Southwest. It is not the Iron Curtain — it serves a very different purpose — but it, too, is a deadly and dehumanizing scar on the land.

The leading presidential candidate for the Republican Party proposes to extend the fencing across the entire border with Mexico and make it taller, more impenetrable. A beautiful wall, as Donald Trump says.

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There Berlin Wall, 1985 — © Brian Rose

The problems of illegal immigration and the desperate flight of refugees seeking freedom will not be solved by a higher, stronger, more efficient — and deadly — wall. It’s a fool’s errand. And the antithesis of American values.

The East Germans euphemistically called their border fortifications the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, or anti-fascist protective rampart. Trump’s beautiful wall is fascism — nakedly expressed, for all to see.

New York/Berlin

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Lichtgrenze (border of light) in Mauerpark  — © Brian Rose

It has taken a while to scan my Berlin negatives from last November. I was there on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the opening of the wall, November 9, 1989, to be exact. The first couple of days were dark and grey, typical for the season in that part of the world. And then I had two days of sun. The image above shows the installation of inflated balloons that formed the LIchtgrenze (border of light) that marked the trace of the former wall through the city. At night, LED lights mounted in the balloon bases, made them glow. During the day, they appeared like a string of pearls stretching across the cityscape.

I shot about 70 sheets of film in the four days leading up to the 25th anniversary, and scanned about 2/3 of them. I think there are about 15 images that are keepers. Working up the scans in Photoshop is time consuming. They are large files — about 500 MBs each — and the level of detail that I bring to coaxing the right look and feel out of the negatives is substantial. It’s relatively easy to color correct globally, but to get everything singing in an image can take hours. And something that looks great one day, can look drastically different the next. Such is the subjective nature of color.

These are the first of the 4×5 scans completed. You’ve seen some of these images before, but those were actually taken with my point and shoot, usually held on top of my view camera.

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Footbridge with LIchtgrenze — © Brian Rose

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Reichstag and other government buildings on the Spree — © Brian Rose

This was a carefully set up shot on a promenade along the Spree, the river that wanders through the center of Berlin. The domed building in the rear is the Reichstag. I felt that I needed something like this — a visual coda, a bit of photographic bravura, for my project that began almost 30 years ago.

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Bernauer Strasse display — © Brian Rose

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Berlin Wall exhibition in Arkade shopping mall at Potsdamer Platz — © Brian Rose

The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall was, of course, a moment both celebratory and reflective. Much damage was done by the division of the city and the Cold War division of Europe in general. People were killed attempting to escape the communist east. Life ambitions were curbed by repression. On the one hand, the reunification of the country meant that the democratic west with all its creative opportunities prevailed, but on the other hand, its crass excesses overwhelmed the more sober lifestyle of the east. And so here we are presented with the perfect dialectical complexity of contemporary Germany. An exhibition about the wall with fake artifacts, a kitschy reconstruction of a guard tower (a real one can be found 500 meters away), juxtaposed with riveting footage of the wall being built in 1961 and people making desperate dashes for freedom. All of it packaged and on display in the Arkade shopping mall in Potsdamer Platz.

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Topography of Terror site and former Luftwaffe Headquarters — © Brian Rose

A few blocks away from the commercialism of Potsdamer Platz one finds the Topography of Terror — the exposed foundations of the Nazi Gestapo/SS headquarters, a preserved strip of the Berlin wall, and the former headquarters of the Nazi air force. The visual compression of history here is profound.

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Wall remnant near the Nordbahnhof — © Brian Rose

There are only a few stretches of the inner wall that still exist — the easily recognized graffitied concrete slabs with the pipe along the top. People were eager to see it all hauled away after its opening in 1989. People now wish they had kept more of it. But there are many lengths of outer wall that can be found around the city especially along rail yards and abandoned industrial areas. Most people don’t even realize that these are remnants of the double walls that surrounded West Berlin.

Stay tuned for more photographs.

New York/Berlin

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Lichtgrenze (light border) along the Spree with the Reichtstag and other government buildings.

I’ve just started scanning my 4×5 negatives from Berlin. So, let’s begin with the last one — the last piece of film, in fact. The light border marking the course of the former Berlin Wall followed the Spree River in the heart of Berlin 25 years after the wall came down. The Reichstag in the background.

I began this project almost 30 years ago when I made my first trip along the Iron Curtain in 1985. It may end here. with this picture.

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.
– Leonard Cohen

 

Berlin/New York

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Checkpoint Charlie — © Brian Rose

Wall hysteria at Checkpoint Charlie. Here we are 25 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, and the interest — the obsession — with the wall is stronger than ever. “The Berlin Wall, See it Here.” A large drum-like structure contains some sort of multi-media wall experience. I didn’t’ go in.

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The Brandenburg Gate — © Brian Rose

A blue sky scrim in front of the gate with the globes of the “light border” running across the stage. After several cloudy days, the real sky mimicked the artificial sky, or vice versa. TV cameras were in position, music stages prepared for bands and orchestras, grandstands were erected for VIPs.

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Niederkirchnerstrasse — © Brian Rose

Before the light globes were inflated, the stands were placed along the path of the former wall, with plastic bags over the LED lights that illuminated the balloons once they were mounted. A Dutch bike was parked against a street pole. An ad for a Walker Evans exhibition stood at right. On the billboard across the street, a thank you to world leaders, notably Mikhail Gorbachev, stood next to a McDonald’s ad.

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N
iederkirchnerstrasse (detail) — © Brian Rose

1-2-3 Cheese! Danke! Spasibo! Thank You! Gorbachev, a hero here in Germany, gets top billing. George Bush (the father) is off to the side.

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Arcadia shopping mall, Potsdamer Platz — © Brian Rose

An jarringly incongruous exhibition in the Arkade shopping mall at Potsdamer Platz featured freshly made border signs.

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Arcadia shopping mall — © Brian Rose

A kitschy mock-up of a guard tower stood in the center of the mall while very real, riveting, historic images of the Berlin wall being built played on a video screen.

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Potsdamer Platz rail station — © Brian Rose

A snow slide in Potsdamer Platz mounted directly along the former trace of the Berlin wall. Throughout my trip, moments of dignity and gravitas were offset by moments of commercial crassness. Potsdamer Platz is a business and shopping center, but it’s only two blocks from the Holocaust memorial, two blocks from the site of the Nazi Gestapo headquarters, and one block from Hitler’s bunker. Shopping is one thing — over the top Time Square style advertising is another.

 

Berlin/Bernauer Strasse

bernauersignsBernauerstrasse — © Brian Rose

Signs mounted along the path through the former no man’s land along Bernauer Strasse. When the wall first went up in 1961, it began as concrete blocks topped with barbed wire. Neighbors could still call out to one another over the wall. Here you can see them standing on ladders or climbing on street poles. The provisional nature of the wall gradually gave way to standardized system that was effective and deadly.

When I began photographing the wall in 1985, it seemed that it was forever. But I had my doubts. It wasn’t that I could see obvious changes on the borderline, but having traveled to the east side a number of times, I came to realize that East Germany — indeed the whole communist/soviet project was held together with brutal force and an inordinate amount of duct tape and chewing gum. I couldn’t understand why the American government couldn’t see that as well. And above all, as the 80s wore on, the push back from citizens of the East — from to shipbuilders of Poland to the students in East Berlin’s Prenzlauerberg (where this photo was taken) became more and more intense.

Nevertheless, in 1987 the New York Times editorial page insisted that the division of Germany was just “a part of the furniture” of the global balance of power. I took issue with that, and my letter to the editor was published with a wonderful accompanying cartoon from the illustrator Suter.

The wall came down two years later.

nytletter

 

 

Berlin/Wall

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Bornholmer Strasse, Berlin — © Brian Rose

My first day in Berlin in five years. I am here for the 25th anniversary of the opening of the Berlin wall. I am adding to a project that began in 1985 when I traveled across Europe photographing the Iron Curtain including Berlin.

Much building has occurred in the open areas that comprised the no man’s land between the double walls that ran through the city dividing it and surrounding what was once known as West Berlin. But even now, over 60 years since World War II, and 25 years since the wall came down, Berlin still exhibits scars and wasteland. It is, however, a greatly transformed place.

The Berlin wall, physically, is mostly gone. There are strips of it here and there, now landmarked, after years of a greater desire to see it gone. But the wall exists more vividly than ever in the imagination and in history, which is always present in this city haunted by the past like no other.

I made my first photographic venture yesterday going to Bornholmer Strasse, a place I had never photographed before, the location of the first border checkpoint to open in the evening of November 9th 1989 when thousands flooded across, there and shortly after, at other crossing points.

There is a monument to that event just across the bridge that crosses the railroad tracks where the border checkpoint used to stand. Large black and white photographs show the crowds of East Germans rushing across into West Berlin. Some of the wall still stands here. Not the outer wall that faced West Berlin, but part of the inner wall on the east side next to the border checkpoint.

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Bernauer Strasse — © Brian Rose

From there I went two S-Bahn stops away to Bernauer Strasse, the location of the main Berlin wall monument. It extends for several blocks and includes sections of the original wall as well as visual interpretations such as the row of steel rods seen above. There are large images fixed to the plaster walls of apartment buildings — blank walls created when residents were evicted and buildings torn down to create a wider and more enforceable no man’s land. In the early days of the wall, Bernauer Strasse was the scene of many dramatic escapes as people leapt from windows that overlooked the west, and many were killed or injured.

There were many visitors to the memorial when I was there, and a motorcade of unidentified men in suits toured the grounds with police and bodyguards hovering around. Today, the S-Bahn drivers are going on strike for part of the day, and will operate fewer trains than normal throughout the week. This will potentially disrupt the festivities planned around the 25th anniversary of the wall coming down — a moment commemorating national unity and the ongoing fight for human rights — and I’m guessing their action will not be much appreciated by anyone.

 

New York/Border Photos

mascontext

 

A time out from my Lower East Side book and exhibition.

My photographs of the former Iron Curtain and Berlin Wall are currently featured in the journal MAS Context. To quote their website, MAS Context, a quarterly journal created by MAS Studio, addresses issues that affect the urban context. Each issue delivers a comprehensive view of a single topic through the active participation of people from different fields and different perspectives who, together, instigate the debate.

The photographs shown begin in 1985 when I first began traveling across Europe with the view camera documenting the landscape of the Iron Curtain and come forward to a few years ago when I was last in Berlin. I have continued to photograph the area where the Wall once ran through the city. Although the border zone has become less visible over the years, there are still moments of urban disjuncture, as well as historical markers, remnants of the Wall, and the presence of new architecture and monuments.

In the last picture of the series, an East German Trabant, the iconic mini car, hovers from a video screen next to the Brandenburg Gate.

 

 

 

New York/Vaclav Havel


Czech/Austrian border 1987 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

It is with great sadness that I note the passing of Vaclav Havel, playwright, political dissident, and former president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. When I traveled the Iron Curtain in 1985 and 1987, Havel and others who resisted the communist/Soviet hegemony of eastern Europe, was always in my thoughts. I skirted the Cold War border from the relative luxury of my rental car while Havel languished in prison or house arrest smuggling out statements and manifestos.

One such fundamental experience, that which I called “antipolitical politics,” is possible and can be effective, even though by its very nature it cannot calculate its effect beforehand. That effect, to be sure, is of a wholly different nature from what the West considers political success. It is hidden, indirect, long-term, and hard to measure; often it exists only in the invisible realm of social consciousness, conscience, and subconsciousness, and it can be almost impossible to determine what value it assumed therein and to what extent, if any, it contributes to shaping social development. It is, however, becoming evident-and I think that is an experience of an essential and universal importance-that a single, seemingly powerless person who dares to cry out the word of truth and to stand behind it with all his person and all his life, ready to pay a high price, has, surprisingly, greater power, though formally disfranchised, than do thousands of anonymous voters.


Czech/German border 1985 (4×5 film) — © Brian Rose

It is becoming evident that even in today’s world, and especially on this exposed rampart where the wind blows most sharply, it is possible to oppose personal experience and the natural world to the “innocent” power and to unmask its guilt, as the author of The Gulag Archipelago has done. It is becoming evident that truth and morality can provide a new starting point for politics and can, even today, have an undeniable political power. The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can, though speaking to themselves. It is becoming evident that wholly personal categories like good and evil still have their unambiguous content and, under certain circumstances, are capable of shaking the seemingly unshakable power with all its army of soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats. It is becoming evident that politics by no means need remain the affair of professionals and that one simple electrician with his heart in the right place, honoring something that transcends him and free of fear, can influence the history of his nation.

Yes, “antipolitical politics” is possible. Politics “from below:’ Politics of man, not of the apparatus. Politics growing from the heart, not from a thesis. It is not an accident that this hopeful experience has to be lived just here, on this grim battlement. Under the “rule of everydayness” we have to descend to the very bottom of a well before we can see the stars. 

— Vaclav Havel


Suzanne Vega performs for Vaclav Havel — © Brian Rose

Some years later I found myself in Prague. It was 1990, one year after the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was meeting up with Suzanne Vega who was playing there and in East Berlin–incandescent performances both of them, fed by the still uncontaminated spirit of liberation in the air. I wrote here about them in my journal. I remember walking from the train station to the central square of Prague behind a group of teenagers singing the dut dut duts from Suzanne’s song Tom’s Diner. Again, years later, I met up with Suzanne in Olomouc in what was now the Czech Republic as she performed Tom’s Diner for Vaclav Havel over a video linkup. Havel was a fan, as he was of the old Velvet Underground and Lou Reed.

Here is, perhaps, the finest tribute to Havel on the 20th years of the Velvet Revolution in Prague on 17 November 2009: