Paul Sullivan chats to Berlin-based photographer Frank Schirrmeister…
Was there a main ‘trigger’ or catalyst that got you interested in photography?
Yes, there was. After many years of searching for what should become of me and a few attempts in photography it eventually clicked when I was in my early 30s. I remember spending the summer as a lifeguard on a small island on the North Sea coast when my girlfriend left me eight years ago. In order to cope with the situation (I was trapped on this island) I wandered the shoreline and took pictures of flotsam and jetsam, which exactly expressed my inner feelings. Later it became my first series of photographs and people encouraged me to follow this path. So I became a photographer.
Did you study photography or are you self taught?
Yes, after having finished my university studies and worked with the Berlin Film Festival for some years I started over and applied at a Berlin-based private school, which later became the Ostkreuz School of Photography. I finished my degree three years ago. My diploma work LAND OF FEAST can be found on my website.
Who were your first inspirations (photographers and also non photographers)?
Being from East Germany, East German photographers had and have a big influence on my idea of photography. I was 20 when the wall came down and I already knew in my younger days names like Ute Mahler, Sibylle Bergemann, Arno Fischer and others. Thus, for me it was a godsend (although I’m atheist) when the Ostkreuz School was founded by exactly the people I had adored since my adolescence. It was a lucky coincidence that this happened when I was ready for it!
So you were born in Berlin? Which part of town do you live in now?
I was born in East Berlin, in the Prenzlauer Berg district, and now live in Friedrichshain. I may describe myself rightly so as an East Berliner.
Your PLAIN CITY project has a very decisive concept behind it – can you explain it to us?
PLAIN CITY is an attempt to keep hold of something, to retain or preserve a particular vision of Berlin, whose only constant is constant change. Berlin today is deemed the trendsetting city in Europe. Due to clever marketing and low-budget airlines, it is known around the world as “the place to be.”
As someone who was born in Berlin, I find it difficult to keep pace emotionally as the city reinvents itself with dizzying speed. I often have the feeling that my own city doesn’t belong to me anymore, but to the forces of the global economy. When photographing Berlin, I am constantly trying to scrutinize and to challenge the popular image of the city. I explore the town beyond the facade, delve into the deeper layers of the metropolis.
Since 2006 I have wandered Berlin with a large format camera, always during the weekend, always at dawn. The reason for getting up that early: the emptiness. Reducing the city to its plain, naked existence is for me a way to approach the essence of the place. Although the streets are devoid of people, traces of everyday life and activity are found everywhere. In the sallow morning light, Berlin’s makeup seems about to crumble, and a transformation happens: things, buildings, places you have seen a thousand times before appear strange and new. In a while, nothing will look the same. The urban landscapes in these photographs are mostly places in transition, waiting for their reshaping. This leaves the chance for a sequel: how will these places look in a conceivable future?
All the photos have a similar feel. Were they taken at a particular time of year or day?
The pictures are mainly taken in autumn and winter since I wanted to avoid architecture hidden behind all these greenery.
Which parts of the city did you explore that were new to you, and which ones did you find most interesting?
I mostly find my motives within the inner city ring of the S-Bahn. Since I used to work as taxi driver when I was a student at university, the city was not really unknown to me.
The most interesting parts in the city for me are the ones that are in transition, that aren’t finished yet, that are expecting something new. After twenty years of renovating the East, such places meanwhile are rather hard to find informer West Berlin. However, my motives actually are spread all-over the town.
Do you think tourism is killing Berlin?
Yes, in the long term. However, tourism seems to be inevitable and is the other side of the coin called metropolis. I just wonder where it is going to end, since the only construction projects that currently are being built in Berlin are hotels. In the absence of any economic potency, the city of Berlin attempts to make tourism the main source of revenue. This strategy is going to fail as soon as the no-frills airlines concept comes to a halt.
How can people visiting Berlin be better tourists?
I think it’s not a question of getting “better” tourists but simply a question of quantity. If in certain areas there is one hostel next to the other the quarter will change regardless of which quality the tourists are.
Would you like to see visitors engaging more in local culture, or keeping away from it?
When visitors engage in local culture or similar they obviously do it for themselves so what should I care. On the other hand, Berlin gains its unique and creative atmosphere also from the people who come here and from their influence on local culture. Thus, apparently both sides benefit from the exchange.
Your SUNDAYS IN BERLIN project seems to be take a similar concept…
Yes, in a way it is the same topic, this time by different means, that is, pure street photography. I see it almost as the contrary as well as the complement to PLAIN CITY.
Again, what kind of circumstances were these shot in?
The approach is similar in its idea but obviously different in its method. For SUNDAYS IN BERLIN I have been exploring the leisure activities of ordinary Berliners, avoiding the big fuss in order to find the unspectacular “real” Berlin. Again, I am rather interested in Berlin on the fringe, beyond the cool downtown districts, to approach the essence of the town, to scrutinize the popular image of Berlin. My procedure is to study the calendar of events at weekends and to select any events who sounded promising, strange, even a little bit obscure and beyond the things I usually do on a Sunday. Then I go there and watch the fuss and with some fortune I arrive back home with an useful image or two.
Are you a typical Berliner in the same way? Do you do these kinds of things with your family, for example, on a Sunday?
I am a typical (East-) Berliner, in the sense of being born in Prenzlauer Berg and grown up there. Nonetheless, many of the portrayed activities are alien and weird to me. My intention was precisely to delve into the deeper layers of Berlin society, to approach social levels and milieus I never come across in my everyday life, to explore the “unknown” Berlin.
What exhibitions have you got coming up?
There will be an exhibition of PLAIN CITY in Hamburg’s Robert-Morat-Gallery next January (til the end of March), followed by an exhibition in Berlin in the EntwederOder, a bar/café in Prenzlauer Berg. As for next year, I am planning a round trip through Europe, working on a project called BEYOND CRISIS (working title).
Can you give us five favourite Slow things to do in Berlin?
1. The small and cosy Bat studio theatre of the Ernst Busch Actor’s School. It is located in Belforter Str. 15, 10405 Prenzlauer Berg. Cheap (5-10 €) and exciting and excellent theatre by drama students of the quite famous Ernst-Busch-school.
2. For an afternoon out, Halbinsel Stralau. Just the opposite of the often overcrowded Treptower Park it offers nice sitting at the banks of the Spree river.
3. Currywurst at Konnopke in Prenzlauer Berg). Unfortunately it has become a cliché and is in every travel guide. However, as someone who grew up nearby I can confirm that this Currywurst has neither ever changed in taste nor is there a better one in Berlin (which, of course, is quite a personal view).
4. Trabrennbahn Mariendorf. Not only for horse race aficionados this racecourse in the south of Berlin is a unique experience. Built (or renovated) in the Seventies, nothing has changed since then! Cheap thrills, “ordinary” people – the “real” Berlin.
5. And then there’s spending the day in the urban hinterland. Just take the S-Bahn to Strausberg-Nord or Bernau and in half an hour you are in the very countryside of Brandenburg. Untouched forests, seemingly abandoned villages, beautiful lakes, landscape as far as the eye can reach.
Frank Schirrmeister is a Berlin-based photographer whose work has been exhibited in Germany, Lithuania, Poland and France. His series Plain City won the 2008 Epson Art Photo Award. In addition to photography, Schirrmeister studied Modern History and European Anthropology (M.A., Humboldt University, Berlin) and Film Studies (University of East Anglia, Norwich, England). He was on the staff of the Berlin International Film Festival from 2000 to 2007. You can check out Frank’s site here and check out this slideshow of Plain City over at Design Observer.
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