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In the blink of an eye

Berlin

 
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Berlin indeed.

The cover picture might give the plot away. This is not about a recent visit, this is about Berlin in 1980.

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The year before I had dropped out of photography school. I got extremely bored with the pure technical approach they adopted there and I took an external photography exam, passed it and could officially call myself a Professional Photographer, certified and all.

In those days you needed that certificate to set up any type of commercial photography business.

 
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I was getting more and more interested in photojournalism and by chance I had met a girl with somewhat similar ambitions, Jacqueline de Gier.

She was also into fashion design in those days, that's how I met her, I think I was asked to cover a fashion show of her.

 
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Anyway, long story short: We where always looking for interesting journalistic stories and this time we decided to go to Berlin. By the way, we had no payed jobs in those days, worked on-and-off on little projects and assignments and we were always very short on cash.

We purchased two-way tickets to Berlin, bought some D-Marks and boarded the train.

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These where the days of the Wall, East versus West Germany, the Cold War.

Going by train to Berlin meant going through East Germany, passing the highly guarded border between West and East, the Iron Curtain. Unfortunately I could not get a single picture of the border crossing, the tension was much to high, guards all over the train and outside.

I did make a few photographs inside the train. It was a long journey and everybody tried to find a way to sleep a little while passing through the dark East German country, almost invisible outside except for some farms that appeared out of the darkness from time to time.

In those days I used Nikon gear. I had purchased a Nikkormat FTN3 when I was still at school, at first only the body, I had no money for a lens yet and then after a while I scraped enough money together to get me a Nikkor 2.0/50mm.

With that setup I learned to photograph.

I already started to develop my films, made prints using a Meopta enlarger equipped with a very decent Nikkor enlarging lens, all basic stuff but reasonably good quality.
I also started with some theater photography that earned me some much needed money from time to time.

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I soon added a Nikkor 2.5/105mm to the set and once in photography school I got myself a very old Nikon F. Great camera, great lens. I shot most of my 35mm work with the F from then on until I got myself a Nikon F2 and a Leica M4 much later.

The photographs in the train where shot with the Nikon F and probably a Nikkor 2.8/24mm but I am not sure about the lens, if not the 24mm then it was a much abused Nikkor 3.5/28mm with a peace of glass missing out of the front lens element. Only visible in your picture with front-light, sort of.

These are all shot on Kodak Tri-X, but I also used Ilford films.

 

On arrival in Berlin we found a not-to-expensive hotel and started to explore the city to get our bearings.
We had prepared ourselves as good as possible at home, but keep in mind that we had no computers, no internet, no Google, no mobile smart phones, these where very different times.

If you needed information you could go to a Library or maybe an Embassy and that was about it.

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I photographed the wall, trying to show the menacing feeling it inflicted, but I did not really get that the way I wanted.
Not bad, but not good enough either. The wall proved to be not that easy to capture.

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And I photographed some of the inhabitants of West-Berlin, mainly complacent expensively dressed Germans.
Again, not bad pictures but not all that convincing either. I was still learning the craft of telling a story.

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Then we found ourselves in Kreuzberg, one of the many quarters of the city, now famous, then unknown to us and most other people outside Berlin.
This was something completely different, especially after the Kurfürstendamm and the rich leather-clad Germans we photographed there.

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Was this the same town? I could imagine a Russian Red Army soldier and a T34 tank appearing around the corner any minute.

It was said that this was the second city of Turkey, that many number of inhabitants where of Turkish origin. We might have found another angle to work on.

 
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That night we where at the Kurfürstendamm checking some of the bourgeois night life for story and photo opportunities when the atmosphere changed completely.

The street was empty, no cars, no pedestrians. Police everywhere. There was trouble ahead.

 

To prepare for what might unfold I set my Nikon F, which had the best and brightest view finder, to a shutter speed of 1/30 of a second and the 50mm to an aperture of 2.0, completely opened up (the 50mm was my lens with the widest aperture option). 1/30s was the slowest shutter speed with which I could expect to produce reasonably sharp results with the Nikon F and I needed all the light I could get through the lens, hence 2.0 fully open.

I also stopped measuring the exact exposure.

Remember, this was before anyone ever heard of a digital camera, this was film and the ISO (ASA in those days) for this film was fixed at 400.

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You could push that a little, but that would have an impact on grain and grey scale, in real life an ISO of 400 or even 360 was the preferred setting for normal work with Tri-X.

In this case I knew I would have to push the sensitivity of film to its limits to get usable results, but that was a problem to be solved later in the dark room.

I put a fresh role of film in the camera, otherwise all previous exposures on the film that was now in the camera would be developed the same way as I would treat these night images and that would effectively render them useless as they where exposed for a sensitivity of 400 ASA, not the pushed sensitivity I was going to use now.

With all that I was prepared as best as I could.

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I wanted to show that this was not just a night demonstration with a lot of police but that the event was actually taking place in Berlin, so I tried a few things like getting some typical German advertising in the background. Being at the Kürfurstendamm helped.

But then things quickly got out of control and a lot of violence erupted.

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I found out that it was very difficult to photograph these things, it is not easy to predict where the action is going to take place, but more important this was my first experience with such human behavior which was quite shocking to me. I found out that I was probably not going to be good at combat photography.

Above a guy who was arrested and managed to escape again. It is not a very impressive as a series of photographs but it does give an idea of what was happening all around us.

 

During all this Jacqueline got to talk to a very friendly reporter from Sender Freies Berlin who was covering the event for radio. I think his name was Mattias, but I could be mistaken, it is a long time ago.

When she related our story he offered us a sleeping spot at his home and the use of his darkroom. This was great because

1) he was a very nice guy and
2) we where starting to run out of cash fast. We would be living in a typical Berlin house with him and his family for the rest of our stay in the city.

I developed the films I shot at the Kudamm the same night, I have no idea what developer we used, I do know it was not a specialised type to push the sensitivity. We set the temperature at something like 30 degrees as opposed to the regular 21 and developed for a long long time, 3x or 4x the recommended. I am sure this was all we could get out of these negatives for now. And behold, we had printable results.

 
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What was the demonstration about? These are the days of squatting all over Europe and the Berlin squatting scene (the 'hausbesetzer') was very active and more or less at war with the authorities, especially the Police. They had organized another unauthorized demonstration at the center of the city and the police reacted accordingly.

Now we really had our story. In Amsterdam there was a similar force in action that got a lot of media attention and it would be interesting to compare the two, "this is how they do it in Berlin".

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And our host had all the contacts.

This meant we where going back to Kreuzberg, but this time with an entry to one of the main playing forces in the area.

I had access to some interesting scenes and could get good photographs while Jacqueline could talk to the key players here. Because we where introduced by our host we where not treated as suspicious and could start working and mixing-in right away.

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We where also invited to visit a squatted house.

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The inhabitants where not informed that we would be showing up, which allowed me to make some nice spontaneous pictures. They did not really mind, all for the good course.

It must be strange to have these outsiders standing in your bedroom when you wake up.

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Jacqueline did a group interview for which they all showed up with sunglasses and hats and all that to disguise themselves, probably not realizing I photographed some of them in their bedroom earlier that day.

It was fun, but the light was to harsh for useful pictures.

 

Of course once we got back it got 'complicated' again. Jacqueline sold her text to the magazine 'Vrij Nederland' and it was published, but I had not reserved enough time to enlarge the best pictures and therefore I as to late to present them along with the text. I was young and had a lot to learn, later in life I would have worked night-and-day to get something ready.

You can see a Gallery of this story on my page 'Berlin 1980'

RoelandComment