Eyes On The Wall, Exhibit

As East and West Germany were reunited, the future of the two halves became the focus of debates around Europe and the world

Wall opening on Bernauer Strasse, Berlin, 1989 | Photo courtesy of Max Lieberman Haus

A wall is never just a wall. It is a spatial division between one room, one house, one country, and a people. The photojournalists covering the days leading to Nov. 9, 1989, knew very well that one single picture of East and West Germans rebelling against the Berlin Wall, would not only make it to the covers of hundreds of newspapers around the world, but they would be a part of history.

The exhibition “Scenes and Traces of a Fall: The Berlin Wall in the eyes of photographers” at Max Lieberman Haus in Berlin, is a silent reminder of a country, a region, and a world, divided by a concrete, but very symbolic wall.

A total of 140 works by 21 renowned photographers is temporarily housed adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate. The organizers, the Foundation Brandenburger Tor considered it “an opportunity and an obligation to document the fall of the Berlin Wall exactly here at this place, which formed the center of events at the time.”

The effect is disturbing and amazing. Before Nov. 9, 1989, West Germans could only photograph half of this monument that has witnessed history from Napoleon’s entry into the city, to the rise of National Socialism. Most of the pictures hang by the many windows in the Max Liebermann Haus, overlooking the monument which symbolizes national unity, and is now flooded by tourists taking pictures of actors representing Russian, East German and American soldiers with their  digital cameras.

Twenty years ago, the picture by Hans W. Mende’s at Checkpoint Charlie shows scores of shadows on the wall, by the wall, at the feet of the wall. The detail of the faces is not necessary. The darkness around the crowds contrasts the emotions communicated through the picture: East Berliners want to go out while West Berliners want to go in. This picture captured the energy before the tipping point: This wall is going down!

In contrast, Werner Mahler’s picture at 4am on Nov. 10, 1989, captures a man running away from the silhouette of Brandenburg Gate, and behind it, East Germany. The excessive flashlight on the subject is up to a point annoying and it shows that it might have caught the photographer off guard. But perfection in technique is useless when the news story is right there in front of you, lifting its arms up in the air, all lit up, while an oppressive and obsolete governmental system is left behind.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, New Year’s Eve, 1989-1990 | Photo: Maurice White

As the world turned its gaze to Berlin, and the awkwardness of suddenly becoming the center of an international media frenzy was photographed by Nelly Rau-Häring. CNN star reporter, Peter Arnett stands on a media platform with the Brandenburg Gate as a backdrop, reporting live, but frozen in black and white.

The pictures of Wilfried Bauer represent not only traces of a fallen wall, but also of the photographer himself, who committed suicide in 2006 after a long battle against depression. Bauer’s family owned a photography store in Hamburg, where he learned from an early age the so called art of “painting with light.” His pictures made it to the covers of GEO, Merian, Der Spiegel, Die Zeit, Stern, among others. Unfortunately, most of his archives were destroyed after his death.

Giles Peres, photographer of the historical photo agency Magnum, literally brings down the wall between spectator, photographer, and the object in the picture. His large format picture incorporates testimonies of random people who saw his work and took up the invitation to write in a white space under the picture. Handwritten sentences that start with “I remember that day…”, “ I was in…” bring more depth into the picture than any lens could ever do by itself.

“Taken together, the result is a visual study of German-German self-consciousness, for which photography seems the ideal medium,” explain the curators. “Photography is such a powerful medium that it is able to stimulate, guide or even eclipse our own associations,”

This exhibition, which by no coincidence opened up on Oct. 3, the Day of German Unity, is one of the dozens of art exhibitions in Berlin commemorating the 20 year anniversary of fall of the wall. The whole of Berlin is doing a countdown into the 20 year anniversary which will culminate in a city-wide celebration and a human chain that will stand over the line indicating where the wall used to stand.

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