Photographing the Past as Present
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)
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
Gerry Badger, in John Gossage,
Berlin in the Time of the Wall (2004)
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)
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.
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?
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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