Colin McPherson

Photographer and Visual Artist

Posts tagged ‘Berlin Wall’

Berlin: After the Wall launch

Trabant car, Oranienburg by Berlin, 1992. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.

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.

Potsdamer Platz, 1992. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.
Wilhelm Strasse, 2019. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.
Lenin Allee (today Landsberger Allee), 1992. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.
Warschauer Bruecke , 2019. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.

Unknown location, Berlin, 1992. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.
Palast der Traenen (Palace of Tears), 2019. Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.
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Where the Berlin Wall once stood

'Warschauer Strasse, 2015.' Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.

‘Warschauer Strasse, 2015.’ Photograph © Colin McPherson, all rights reserved.

Last week saw the 26th anniversary of the historic events of November 1989 when a popular uprising by citizens of the German Democratic Republic led to the opening of the Berlin Wall, which had stood and divided friends, families, a city, Germany and Europe since it was constructed in 1961.

I started photographing the Wall in 1985 during a visit to the city and have returned at regular intervals over those 30 years to look at the changing natural and built environment along the course of the Wall. No-one could have dreamed 30 years ago that the Berlin Wall would fall in such dramatic and sudden circumstances. But rather than looking at those momentous events, my photographs show how the Wall occupied the physical space between two halves of the city and now, years after it fell, where the traces and scars can still be seen on the landscape.

Berlin Now and Then is an ongoing project and has been exhibited and published down the years. I am currently in Berlin and once again have set out to capture the the continuing changes which make much of the Berlin Wall nothing more than a distant and barely visible memory.



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Ich bin ein Berliner

Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, 1985. © Colin McPherson.

Brandenburg Gate, West Berlin, 1985. © Colin McPherson.

There will be much written and discussed about the Berlin Wall this weekend, as Germany and Europe commemorate the momentous events of November 9, 1989, when the barrier which had divided the city since 1961 was sensationally breached by its citizens.

The anniversary also coincides rather neatly with me marking 25 years as a professional photographer. The irony for me is that had I not secured paid employment as a photographer in Edinburgh at the beginning of November 1989, I would surely have been in Berlin on that dramatic and fateful night. But it wasn’t to be.

It’s September 1989. I am packing my bags and returning to Scotland after a couple of months in Berlin. I’d been to visit friends on the eastern side of the Wall, making trips to East Berlin and Leipzig, where all the talk was of GDR citizens trying to find ways of either getting out of their country or laying low before any crackdown by the authorities occurred. I left Berlin with plans for a quick return. The place had become my second home and as well as my fascination for Berlin and its history, my friend, uncle and mentor, the photographer Henning Langenheim was my other reason to find inspiration in the city. He was a constant source of information and knowledge, not only about photography, but on the current state-of-affairs in the fulcrum of Europe. I listened and learned from him, but the the only thing he – like everyone else – failed to predict, was that within two months of me leaving West Berlin, the Wall would fall.

It’s October 1989. I am back in Edinburgh and an advert in the local paper advertises the position of photographer at the Edinburgh Herald & Post, a weekly advertiser owned by the Scotsman newspaper. I was encouraged to apply, and for some reason or other, I beat off 94 other applicants to land the job. Full-time, starting immediately. So I put down my travelling bag and picked up my kit bag. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I remember watching in awe the spectacle of East Germans climbing on the Wall on that remarkable night and the scenes the following day of Trabants streaming through the checkpoints. I understood the territory, but like everyone else, couldn’t understand the bigger picture. In the days, weeks and months that followed, Henning Langenheim photographed the Die Wende. Eventually, when holidays permitted, I returned to Berlin and trained my camera on the city again.

My career has taken a long, varied and interesting path, it’s trajectory ever upwards from those days of local news around Edinburgh and West Lothian. I wouldn’t change it for anything. But there’s a tiny part of me which wonders to this day, what would have happened if I hadn’t returned to Scotland, instead staying on in Berlin until November 9, 1989. I have photographed Berlin, on and off, for over three decades (click here to see a gallery). But even now, 25 years after it fell, the Wall still fascinates and captivates me.


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Up Against the Berlin Wall

My first sighting of the Berlin Wall was from the East German Reichsbahn train as it crept towards the city through the former German Democratic Republic. It was 1982 and I was 17-years-old.

I was in transit through the GDR from Holland and as we stopped at the border crossing, I thumbed my passport nervously. Getting from West Germany to East Germany required passes, visas and stamps, followed by questions and examination of luggage and personal belongings. From the time the Wall was built in 1961 until it was torn down by the citizens of both sides of the divided city, getting into West Berlin was not easy.

Over the following three decades I became fascinated by the structure which came to symbolise the Cold War division of post-World War II Europe. I made successive trips to the city, often crossing over from the western sector to the east. When the Wall finally came down, I became equally fascinated by its legacy: the destruction of the barrier and what sprang up in its place. In some locations, development was almost instantaneous. In other, outlying areas of the city, it took years before almost every trace of the course of the Wall was eradicated. Today, the Wall is represented by the Mauerweg, a tarmacked trail which brings the visitor into collision with the city’s turbulent past.

These photographs represent some of the images I made along the Berlin Wall during a decade from 1985. I wasn’t present in the city during the dramatic and well-documented events of November 1989. But my interest in the city and the Wall has continued long after the chisels and bulldozers fell silent and the city was re-united.

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