Spring 2006

Now and then in Berlin

Ortszeit / Local Time

By Stefan Koppelkamm
Edition Axel Menges, £36, €48

This book of photographs pays eloquent testimony to the extraordinary changes that took place in the urban fabric of eastern Germany in the years immediately after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Photographer and graphic designer Stefan Koppelkamm photographed the streets and buildings of a number of key cities and towns in the former GDR between 1991-92, and then returned to take pictures at exactly the same spot from the same vantage point a decade or so later. The fine large-format black and white pictures make for fascinating comparison, the book’s uncluttered layout, allowing them to speak for themselves.

Inevitably, most of the crumbling buildings in the ‘befores’ reappear scrubbed up and freshly repaired in the ‘afters’, mostly with new shops and businesses installed, though there are a few surprising exceptions where, if anything, ten years on the decay is even more marked. The car is notably absent in the earlier pictures, apart from the lone Trabant or Wartburg. In the later years, BMW, VW and Mercedes rule supreme, and with them comes an array of new street signs and bollards.

The unrenovated buildings look strikingly ancient, rustic even, although some of them feature what must be relatively recent additions – for example, the pitched corrugated iron roof and modern windows that appear on the Teufelserker-Haus in Pirna in 1991. The building re-emerges in 2003, painstakingly restored to its seventeenth-century splendour and yet, with its period windows and fine ornate gable proudly reinstated, looks strangely modern and sophisticated – a reminder that ‘sympathetic’ renovation is actually a relatively recent phenomenon and that many period buildings became ‘buried’ over the years until the second half of the twentieth century, when later accretions were stripped back to reveal the original structure.

Germany’s turbulent twentieth century has made it fertile ground for photography projects that explore historical change. Ludger Derenthal’s useful accompanying essay makes reference to the work of another photographer, Karl Hugo Schmölz, who took pictures of Cologne’s buildings in 1938 and then again in 1945. I am also reminded of The Writing on the Wall, the ghostly project of Shimon Attie, who in the early 1990s projected archival photographs from the 1920s and 30s of Berlin’s Scheunenviertel (then a thriving Jewish quarter) on to what remained of the original buildings.

Koppelkamm’s stern documentary photographs are mostly devoid of people and are the more powerful for it. This gives the images a stronger sense of place and allows a contemplation of the changes to the physical world, albeit often man-made, that time inevitably brings.

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