Review: Berlin by Mitch Epstein


Book Reviews, Photobooks


If you have ever been to Berlin you know about the city’s strange allure: It is inevitable that you know many things about it, things that you wouldn’t know about any other city. So you travel there filled with excitement and some apprehension maybe. Once you’re there the contemporary city, a charming mix of buildings and people, seemingly thrown together at random, with no real planning behind it, will overwhelm your senses. (more)

If Frankfurt (the one at the river Main) looks (and tries to behave) most American of all German cities, Berlin feels it: You get there and think that, well, all things are possible, whereas in reality they only truly are if you have a lot of money.

And there is all that history. By German standards, Berlin is not a very old city. You can see Roman ruins in Cologne. By German standards, Berlin also doesn’t have tremendously spectacular architecture. The Brandenburg Gate or the Reichstag are nice enough, but if you’ve ever been inside Cologne’s huge cathedral or seen Dresden’s opera house you know what I mean. Berlin is more like a mess of pretty good stuff thrown into one place, with a lot of terrible history on top, and that is exactly what makes this city.

It’s hard to look past the history. And why would you? Berlin is making no effort to hide it, quite on the contrary. In terms of years, there is less history than elsewhere. In terms of the magnitude of history happening over just the past 100 years, you’ll be hard pressed to find another city so full of sites, either memorials or buildings used for one purpose, and then re-used for another purpose, and then re-re-used for yet another purpose.

These are the places that Mitch Epstein pointed his camera at when spending half a year in Berlin, as a guest of the American Academy: Places or buildings connected to Germany’s most recent history, meaning the Third Reich, Communist East Berlin and occupied West Berlin, and now united Berlin. These photographs have now been published in Berlin.

Epstein’s approach is very different from, let’s say, Michael Schmidt’s - here you have the outsider’s or visitor’s view versus the insider’s. It’s possible (or maybe even likely) that many people will prefer one over the other. I think that taken together they truly blossom. I’d say that if you’re a visitor and are a bit observant, then Epstein’s photographs are what you see and what has you excited, and Schmidt’s contain all the stuff that has you a little bit on the edge, that creates unease.

In the growing number of photobooks about the city (someone is probably already working on a book about Berlin photobooks), Epstein’s Berlin is going to occupy a prominent spot, somewhere where there used to be a void before.

Berlin, photographs by Mitch Epstein, 72 pages, Steidl, 2011

Those interested in seeing the book can have a peek at my photobook presentation.