Natalie Holmes chats to photographer, film-maker, author and all-round “radical man” Miron Zownir…
Having taken up photography during the peak of the punk phenomenon in the late 70s, German photographer Miron Zownir emigrated to the USA in 1980, living in New York, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.
It was in New York that Zownir made his name as a moody, expressionistic and unflinching photographer, capturing the darker fringes of society in the style of Diane Arbus or Weegee.
In spite of repeated arrests and subsequent censorship for alleged pornographic subject matter, and experiencing assault and threat on countless occasions during his photographic researches, Zownir never settled for a restricted vision. Shooting mostly in black and white Zownir’s approach is unsparing and often sexual, but his images are often surprisingly poetic and deeply sympathetic.
His chosen subject matter over the years has ranged from the gay parties of NYC (shortly before the Aids epidemic), protests against the commercialisation of Manhattan, the dropouts of the Bowery and the shadowy world of hookers, bums, junkies, psychos and traumatised Vietnam vets. His ‘Sex Piers’ series, shot at the dilapidated port area between Westside Highway and the Hudson River and a famous meeting point for homosexuals and transsexuals, are by now legendary.
Zownir has also ventured into filmmaking and fiction, writing and directing several short underground films such as his 1993 anti-racism movie Skinhead Lane / Auf Offener Strasse and his 2003 pulp-noir novel Kein Schlichter Abgang / No Easy Way Out. Based back in Berlin since 1995, Zownir continues to make films and write books. He has published several wonderful photo books, including RIP NYC, Valley Of The Shadow, and Berlin Noir, a retrospective of images taken in the German capital between 1978 and 2016.
Where were you born and raised, and how have these places shaped your work?
I was born and raised in Karlsruhe in south west Germany. And as the early years always shape your personality, they also influence a lot of other things.
It’s your sensitivity to your surroundings that makes the difference; how you adapt to it; how much you like or dislike it; if you go beyond or below the expectations of others; if you find your own way in life or follow the footsteps already printed and laid out for you like a roadmap. You could grow up in Bombay, in a mid-western shithole or in Karlsruhe—what matters most is how your mind spirit and body are developing and what you want to get out of life.
In my case I lived for the first six years of my life with my grandparents in a rather claustrophobic, sometimes funny and sometimes horrifying (post world war) setting full of bizarre small town characters: misfits, Nazis, Socialists, cowards, handicaps, idiots etc. And for the next six or seven years I always came back to it at weekends because I was emotionally attached to it.
But sometimes I’m not so sure anymore if my bizarre memory of that time is due to a premature overload of imagination. From the beginning I saw things in a way that was always a little bit away from the primary perspective. Before I fell asleep I would create stories about people that affected me with their solitary, tragic, frightening or miserable appearance, which printed lasting impressions on my unconsciousness.
Probably if I had grown up in a perfectly sterile, positive and functional world, I would have had other nightmares, desires and hopes and would have expressed myself differently.
How do you feel about Berlin? How long have you lived here and how has it changed in that time?
In the 70s I lived for almost five years in Berlin, and again from 1995 until now. I must say I liked Berlin most when I was living somewhere else. When I’m here I mostly hate the weather or something else gets on my nerves.
But it’s still a pretty good place to get by and approach and realise your artistic projects. It’s probably a good party town too but that doesn’t grab me too much. I’m a fairly solitary worker and other than my girlfriend Nico, a couple of friends or people I work with I’m not that sociable. As for the change, I think change is always better than stagnation. But the way the whole city has turned into a ruthless project for one piece of commercial bullshit enterprise after another is kind of disturbing.
After the war Berlin developed kind of in a freestyle way and its energy input and ideas came mostly from the streets. Back than until the fall of the wall it was mostly a city of underdogs, draft evaders, outlaws, misfits and free spirited people. Now it’s turning more and more into a yuppie town and an exchangeable cosmopolitan playground for people with money. But Berlin is big and you still can find very authentic, unusual and strange places if you don’t stick to a “it used to be better” attitude. Berlin always had a strange magic and I’m sure not even money can erase that too soon.
Your photography often captures the dark or grotesque in people and urban environments; what draws you to this?
I guess I’ve partially answered that question already. But it is also a matter of perception. What you might consider dark or grotesque might well be free, uncompromising, strange, tragic, unique, interesting or whatever. Some people love violent movies without ever hurting someone. The human mind is very complex.
Why do I create in my novels and movies a violent and gloomy world? Partly because it exists and partly because it fascinates me. That doesn’t mean I have to like or dislike it. Or that I have any solution for a better world. Or that I want a better world. Or that I’m documenting or focusing on the only world that exists. Maybe I’m just a somnambulist hypnotised by a dead planet. (Just kidding).
What are your favourite places in Berlin, both to be and to photograph?
My bed and my desk (just kidding) Well as I said before I like surprises I have seen a lot but I’m anytime up for more.