January/February 2005

more feature articles:

Doubt Fear
Censorship‚s many faces
by Caroline A. Jones

JOHN GOSSAGE‚S BERLIN

Photographing the Past as Present

By Laura Katzman

London, Paris, and Rome have histories, but Berlin has a past. It is the Sodom of our century, destroyed for her sins and then left as a stern reminder.

                Lewis Baltz, in Camera Austria (1988)

One could not escape The Wall in the divided city∑The Wall locked [Berlin] into a state of complete temporal stasis, pervading it with a sense of crazy unreality. During the őTime of the Wall‚ the city was a  living museum of 20th century history, a memorial, an island stopped in time while the rest of the world moved on.

                Gerry Badger, in John Gossage,
                Berlin in the Time of the Wall (2004)

John Gossage makes profoundly subtle photographs. He has done so for over forty years. His social landscapes belong to the „New Topographicsš photography exemplified by the images of Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore in the 1970s. Rejecting romantic modernist landscapes, these photographers critically embrace mundane, man-altered or man-managed environments. Yet, Gossage‚s approach is more quizzical and enigmatic than that of his contemporaries. Now a classic, his photobook The Pond (Aperture, 1985) orchestrates intimate images of an unkempt wooded area „charting that unlovely territory ... that is neither town nor country, the scrofulous interface between urbanity and nature.š1

John Gossage, Alte Jakobstr. 1989, gelatin silver print (all images courtesy of the artist)

Gossage‚s newest photobook, Berlin in the Time of the Wall (Loosestrife, 2004) reveals a stronger response to a place, its history and politics than his previous books.2 It is his most ambitious treatment of a single subject as the Wall is by far his most politically and psychologically charged subject. Gossage photographed the Wall (Die Mauer) in the pre-reunification era, when the specter of Berlin‚s Nazi past and its wartime wounds were visible everywhere. Ordered in 1961 by Socialist leader Walter Ulbricht, the Wall bluntly bisected Berlin into Eastern and Western zones, transforming the already complex city into a virtual battleground for global supremacy. Berlin‚s very urban fabric was shaped and crisscrossed by the twentieth century‚s most powerful ruling ideologies ųWestern Capitalism and Soviet-style Communism. It is no wonder that Gossage calls his weighty tome a history book.

On the fifteenth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, I interviewed Gossage to learn how he had visualized and interpreted the Wall at these critical moments in its history. I sought greater understanding of his attraction to a subject that at first seems anathema to his sensibility. Gossage typically records the easily forgottenų„paths worn through abandoned tracts of land, corners where debris collects, markings on a wall.š3 Why would a photographer who delights in the accidental and the un-iconic take on such an imposing and monumental subject? What could the most potent symbol of the Cold War offer a photographic philosopher like John Gossage? How could Gossage‚s nuanced vision enrich our perception of both the Wall and urban landscape photography?

Gossage initially came to Berlin in 1982 at the invitation of Michael Schmidt, founder of the Werkstatt für Fotografie in Kreuzberg, a center that sought to expose young German photographers to the most innovative American work (Gossage showed with Leo Castelli Gallery at the time). Berlin was then a counter-cultural hotbed, generously subsidized by the West German government. At once tough, gritty, and serious, it reminded him of his native New York. Stimulated by this intensity, Gossage returned to Berlin several times a year over the course of the decade.

John Gossage, Near Lohmühlenbrücke, 1987, gelatin silver print

His first encounter with the Wall was momentous: „the physical presence of it was so astonishing.š He initially thought it preposterous, like a public relations ploy orchestrated by the CIA to denigrate Communism. He also saw it as the most „stunning piece of public sculpture ever erected,š controlling the space it occupies, like Richard Serra‚s Tilted Arc, 1981. Gossage realized that this pregnant subject would inform everything he would do in the future. He photographed the Wall with curiosity and a growing urgency, sensing its imminent demise.  To his surprise, few other Berlin photographers were imaging the Wall then (more got interested later in the decade), wondering how they could ignore this „900 pound gorilla in the living room,š which he saw as evilős embodiment.

Gossage scrupulously followed the Wall‚s one-hundred-and-fifty-five kilometers with his hand-held medium format cameras, venturing into areas of Berlin where few Germans had gone. He worked with a forensic archaeologist‚s intuition, as Badger notes, allowing each discovery to lead him deeper in the investigation. He paid attention to the Wall‚s inconsistent enclosure of the city, to its various levels of fortification, and to differences between the higher, stronger, graffitied West Wall and the drab, lower-tech East Wall. He gravitated towards the infamous no-man‚s land (Todestreiffen or Death Strip), eliciting meaning from the empty wasteland between the walls that became a breeding ground for hard-core punk and other subversive activity.

Seven untitled chapters establish provocative contexts for Gossage‚s photographs. This distribution slows us down to look closerųa practice that makes him one of the most sophisticated artists of the contemporary photobook.4 Like Eugene Atget‚s documentation of a disappearing Paris, Berlin in the Time of the Wall evokes the experience of the urban explorer moving through the city, distracted by surreal details and unexpected detours.5 The book opens with images of the Wall and its environs to convey life in a walled city. Many photographs assert the Wall‚s relentless presence and basic function; it traverses space sharply and endlessly, obstructing views and blocking access. In some images, the Wall competes for spatial dominance with a tenacious, overgrown nature. Other images flirt with our expectations, using a mystical light to seduce us into a deep perspective that frustratingly leads nowhere. Elsewhere, the West and East Walls both slice through Berlin, framing a no-man‚s land replete with formidable tank traps to prevent crossing. Juxtaposing the farther East Wall with a sign that reads Worker‚s Solidarity Club, Gossage foregrounds the contradictions inherent in the Socialist dream of building a collective society in a severed city.

1990, gelatin silver print

The pictures become increasingly darker, even radically black, as we approach the physical heart of the book: Berlin at nightųa metaphor for an occupied city burdened by the dark forces of fascism and totalitarianism. The following section features surveillance photographs taken by Gossage to see over and beyond the West Wall into the East. The last chapters document Berlin after the Wall‚s dismantlement in 1989, when Gossage returned to see the remnants, „the literal crumbsš of the city he knew and to walk the formerly verboten no-man‚s land.

Despite the book‚s loose chronological layout (from 1982-1993), history is not its cohesive narrative. Nor does the book provide a definitive topographical account of Berlin and the Wall. Gossage‚s narrative is more fragmented, elusive, and questioning. Meaning accumulates, as one proceeds through the book over time, with multiple viewings. The ensemble assumes greater historical grounding with Gerry Badger‚s compelling text and chilling Coda of facts about the Wall. The timing of Gossage‚s publication, long after the immediate sequels of the Wall‚s collapse, German reunification and the rebuilding of Berlin as a world capital also contributes to this gravitas. Using differential focus, Gossage‚s oblique and poetic look at the Wall crystallizes the historical layers and contradictions of a progressive city locked in its sordid past.

If Gossage sought „to photograph Berlin‚s past as present,š that is, to document the ways in which the city „carried its historical baggage into the present,š he also explores how photography can „make visible the psychological effects of history,š playing with its power to both inform and illuminate.6 His surveillance photographs explore this aspect of photography. Needing to overcome the obstacles faced on the heavily patrolled East Wall, where his film was confiscated, Gossage customized his Nikon with a long telephoto lens and super high speed film and, shooting at night, he captured images into forbidden Eastern zones. He gained „a certain freedom to see past things,š enjoying the conceit that his empowered camera could symbolically unify the divided Berlin. Gossage is well aware of photographs‚ military and political uses as instruments of power. His illicit pictures even mock the mutual surveillance secured by West and East German governments through spy photography during the Cold War.

Right: John Gossage, Bernaurerstr., 1982, gelatin silver print

His surveillance pictures, however, are ultimately paradoxical. Dark and mysterious, their ghostly images of guard towers blocked by foreground objects obscure more than they reveal of the former Socialist East. This is relevant to the current terrorism-conscious climate of heightened government security and high-tech surveillance. Purporting to protect us from perceived enemies, such observation strategies add little to our understanding of terrorist threats. They intensify public confusion and fear instead. Stronger viewing devices do not necessarily yield crucial insight or critical information. This may indeed be the essential truth revealed by Gossage‚s project and by his probing photography at large. Berlin in the Time of the Wallųa brilliant meditation on vision, photography, and the camera‚s particular way of seeingųthus offers poignant if not sobering lessons for Americans here today.

All quotations from John Gossage are from interviews with the author, October 7 and 24, 2004. The author is grateful to Mr. Gossage and his publisher Michael D. Abrams for their generous assistance.

NOTES

1 Gerry Badger, in John Gossage, Berlin in the Time of the Wall, Washington, DC: Loosestrife Editions, 2004, 439.

2 Some of Gossage‚s Berlin photographs appeared in earlier books such as Stadt des Schwarz, Washington, DC/West Berlin: Loosestrife Editions, 1987.

3 Michael Welch, in a catalogue based on Berlin in the Time of the Wall, Chicago: Stephen Daiter Contemporary, 2004, preface.

4 Gossage‚s books are arguably his greatest contribution to contemporary photography, and may explain his esteemed reputation in Germany and Italy, where book craft has a venerable tradition. See Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History, vol. I, London: Phaidon Press, 2004.

5 Other important photobooks for Gossage include: Walker Evans, American Photographs, 1938; Robert Frank, The Americans, 1959; and Daido Moriyama, Hunter, 1972.

6 First two quotes from Gossage in Badger, op. cit., 439.

An exhibition of photographs from Berlin in the Time of the Wall on view at Light Work at Syracuse University from November 15 to December 31, 2004, was accompanied by a special issue of Contact Sheet (no. 129, 2004). A related exhibition will be on view at Stephen Daiter Contemporary in Chicago in January 2005.

LAURA KATZMAN, Associate Professor of Art at Randolph-Macon Woman‚s College, is the co-author of Ben Shahn‚s New York: The Photography of Modern Times published by Yale University Press in 2000. She was a Senior Fulbright Scholar at the University of Hamburg in Germany in 2002-2003. Her review of Maryland Art Place‚s exhibition Territory/Ambiguity appeared in the May/June 2004 issue of ART PAPERS.

 

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