The approaching milestone of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will be greeted with commemoration and commentaries from many voices across Germany and further afield. Nearer to home, I will be launching an exhibition in Liverpool and book under the title Berlin: After the Wall to coincide with this momentous anniversary.
The dramatic events which came to symbolise the end of the decades-long Cold War and the reshaping of Europe were documented extensively by photographers from across the world. We are familiar with the scenes of streams of happy people rushing through the breached Wall, as the East German authorities surrendered their 28-year long control of its people and opened the border to the West.
But after the euphoria came a realisation that Germany, and in particular Berlin, had been scarred by division and that the people of the two republics had grown apart under the twin systems which ruled the country in the wake of the collapse and defeat of Nazi Germany.
Berlin in particular bore the physical marks of this separation, with walls, watchtowers, barbed wire, requisitioned buildings and a wide strip of no-man’s land disfiguring the city, from its historic centre in locations such as Potsdamer Platz, the Brandenburg Gate and areas around the ruined Reichstag building, all the way out to the border with rural Brandenburg. Berlin, a city redrawn and quartered between the four Allied powers after 1945, would bear the scars for years.
My own association with the city dates back to 1982 when, as a 17-year-old, I paid my first visit to my uncle, the photographer Henning Langenheim, and his young family in West Berlin. Already captivated by my family history (my mother was born during the last days of the Weimar Republic in Berlin), it was an opportunity to explore one of the most strange and unique cityscapes. The Wall, an ugly concrete edifice, ran through peoples’ daily lives. By 1982, it was an established and accepted part of the architecture and life in went on in the western sectors of the city, with its radical politics and Bohemian lifestyle set against the ‘other’, a grey reality, unseen on the eastern side of the barrier. Even by then, the Wall was something of a tourist novelty, a place where you could experience the reality of division, stand on viewing platforms and gaze down streets with Trabant cars and few shops but where the people had no interest in, or opportunity to, reciprocate your curiosity.
Over the years, I made trips in to East Berlin, to meet friends and contacts and to experience a sliver of the Socialist dream. Taking the S-Bahn train from Kreuzberg and surrendering yourself to the laborious and bureaucratic process which was required to figuratively cross the street, you emerged into a world so alien, yet strangely familiar. He was another Germany, a different Berlin. When the bell tolled at midnight, you re-entered the so-called Palace of Tears (Palast der Tränen) border crossing building and slipped back into West Berlin before your day visa expired. This was the living reality of the Wall, a structure which defined not just an era, but a political and social philosophy.
By a twist of fate I was not in Berlin when the Wall fell. I had spent much of the summer of 1989 in the city and remember speaking to people in East Germany about the unfolding events in neighbouring Communist countries, where the clamour for change and freedom was gathering pace. East Berliners were leaving in their droves. One evening, a friend pointed to the enormous Soviet-style apartment block opposite where he lived and drew my attention to the fact that there were so few lights on. Proof, he said, that the residents had gone, either to Poland, Hungary or to camp out in the West German embassy in Prague, desperate to see another life and all the promises the West made about freedom and the benefits of Capitalism.
No-one at that point could foresee what would happen as summer gave way to autumn and East German clamour for change grew. Under the weight of people power, the Wall gave way and on the night of 9 November, Erich Honecker’s regime opened the border to all. It was the beginning of the end for East Germany and would lead to the redrawing of international frontiers and boundaries across the continent.
I didn’t return to Berlin until the early months of 1992, mainly due to the early stages of my career as a photographer confining me to more mundane local stories in Scotland. When I finally linked up with my uncle Henning again, the process of transforming the urban landscape was just beginning. Vast swathes of the city centre stood empty, awaiting development and rebuilding. Grand plans to revive and resuscitate tranches of land which had lain empty for three decade were by then shovel-ready. The process of change would accelerate over the coming decade and the viewing platforms which had once allowed visitors to peer over the great divide now gave locals an overview of meteoric transformation. Within 15 years, Potsdamer Platz became a business hub, the Brandenburg Gate an iconic tourist location, and Berlin was the capital city of a reunified Berlin, symbolised by the magnificent restoration of the Reichstag, the parliament building which had been witness to so much political turmoil over the past century and more.
For me, the endless cycle of change gave an opportunity to document an epoch of time which will never be repeated. My trips to the city, by now home to other family members, became more frequent, as the ease and cost of travelling there became attractive. Without a sense of knowing where this work was going, I just kept clicking in a ritualistic and inquisitive way.
In 2004, my mentor and inspiration Henning Langenheim passed away. Taken suddenly from us, the void left behind was painful and difficult to fill. He had been my guide and teacher not just in photography, but with life in general. We had travelled and photographed together far beyond Berlin, to Scotland, eastern Europe and the Middle East. He showed me how to fill the gaps between the mechanical skills of taking photographs and the ideas and research you need to carry out and realise great projects or bodies of work. Without knowing it, in the years beyond his passing, I carried a baton of continuing to chronicle life in the city he loved and treasured so much.
In 2019, with the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Wall approaching, I decided to revisit some of my favourite work from all the photography I have made in Berlin. Armed with a work book containing 28 prints of images taken between 1992-94, I set off to try to locate again and re-take pictures from the precise positions the originals were made. After a fortnight of painstaking research, endless questions, the viewing of hundreds of archive images and countless hours of film footage, I was only able to definitively find 12 of these places and take updated photographs. My original notes, incomplete and inaccurate, provided little guidance. Despite days spent walking and cycling and looking for clues, Berlin’s present had done its best to obscure the past. The transformation is complete. Where once the Wall seared through the city, now parklands and cycle ways invite you to enjoy Berlin. Even if the tourist industry does try to cash in on the Wall and a sense of ‘Ostalgia’, it is possible to escape the past and find yourself in green and tranquil places, oblivious to history and its grim memories.
And so, as with any project, the question of outcomes comes to the fore. I had the feeling returning from Berlin this summer that the project was finished. The cycle felt complete and closed. The opportunity to exhibit some of the work as part of the SixBySix initiative, a group of photographers from Merseyside who have come together to explore the meaning of documentary photography and to share and disseminate their ideas, came at a perfect time with the 30th anniversary coming up. Simultaneously, Cafe Royal Book agreed to publish one of their editions featuring the photographs I made in the early 1990s and which has formed the basis for an exhibition of my work which opens in Liverpool this week.
My relationship with Berlin will continue, but will be redrawn, like the map has been since 1989. It feels less imperative to continue the process of documenting the Wall, as the changes from now on will be more cosmetic and less noticeable. In the city’s ever-evolving relationship with its past, the era defined by the Wall will become another chapter, rather than the story. It will be time to find another narrative, another reason for me to return there and work.
Berlin: After the Wall 1992-2019 will be on display from 24 October until 1 December, 2019 at the Lightbox Gallery, Ropes & Twines, 70 Bold Street, Liverpool L1 1HR. Opening times vary, admission is free.
The book Berlin: After the Wall 1992-94 is published this week by Cafe Royal Books, copies can be purchased from them or directly from me.