After 1945, Berlin was a city split, partitioned and, finally, cut through by a wall. Not much was left of the capital’s former significance or old splendor.
In the 1970s, Karl-Ludwig Lange captured both sides of the divided city in a series of street photos, showing everyday people waiting at stoplights.
In the West, he captured images of teenagers in bell-bottoms, their hair coiffed like Günter Netzer, a popular soccer player. He shot people, wealthy from West Germany’s economic miracle, in expensive coats, standing in front of jewelry and nightclub advertisements.
His photos of the East of the city are a stark contrast. The building facades are sooty and grey, the people wear old-fashioned coats. And yet, the faces in both parts of the city resemble each other. They view the world with skepticism. They are glum.
Even though his name is not so well-known now, Mr. Lange is probably the most important Berlin photographer of the post-war era.
For more than 40 years, he photographed the continuously changing city in all its facets. Now the Kommunale Gallery in Berlin is showing over 1,000 of his photos in 10 venues around the city.
“After the war, Berlin was 97 percent rubble, but people acted as if it were full of life.”
The Stasi, the ministry for state security in former East Germany, was extremely interested in Mr. Lange’s work. When he took his photos on Schönhauser Allee in the East, there were inconspicuously-conspicuous men with German shepherds loitering nearby.
“In East Germany, you were suspicious if you took photos that were not family pictures,” Mr. Lange said. From then until the Wall fell, he decided not to visit the East, focusing instead on the west of the city for his urban, historical and sociological documentation.
His photos were certainly no tourism advertisements for Berlin. In 1986, in the not-yet-hip Crellestrasse area of Schöneberg, he documented crumbling buildings with bullet holes from 1945. The district of Wedding in 1990 is reminiscent of sinister alleys in a film noir.
“Where does it look chic in Berlin?” Karl-Ludwig Lange answered his own question immediately: “On Friedrichstrasse, a really small strip of the city, it looks chic. Otherwise, nowhere else. ”
Showing the scars and the dilapidation is “a form of realism,” he said. Yet he refutes the notion that Berlin always looks so gray in his photos. “Nonsense,” he said, referring to the exhibition behind him in the Pankow Museum on Prenzlauer Allee, where the interview was conducted. “The sun is shining there!”
In fact, many of his shots are flooded with sunlight. Yet the places and buildings in his photos carry the weight of history, and are far from cheerful.
For Mr. Lange, Berlin is still a place of destruction. “The city was burned in the second world war,” he said. “After the war, Berlin was 97 percent rubble, but people acted as if it were full of life.” Seen in that light, Mr. Lange’s work could help to shift the collective perception of the city’s past and present a little.
Mr. Lange, who was born 65 years ago in Minden in northwestern Germany’s Westphalia region, came to Berlin in 1967 after he had broken off his school education. Photography was what interested him most back then, he said, so he took up an apprenticeship in a photo workshop.
He worked as an assistant for Will McBride, a photographer who was just starting out in Munich, and Swiss advertising pro James Perret. After an internship with the German Press Agency DPA, his sense of resignation remained: “I took photos of theater premieres and a newborn gorilla at the zoo. Getting a permit agreement in those years was an absolute journalistic high point. Otherwise, there was nothing to report from Berlin.”
Mr. Lange became a freelancer, not as a photojournalist but rather as a fine-arts photographer. “I still have existential angst up to this day,” he said. He lives mostly on grants and museum sales.
One of his most magnificent photos, taken in 1974, shows a man smoking on Admiralstrasse in Kreuzberg in West Berlin. Behind him, words on the wall proclaim “Citizens will be hit over the head and tortured with broadcasting messages.” Just another sign that madness has always been part of daily life in Berlin.
This article first appeared in Tagespiegel. The exhibition opens October 26 at the Kommunale Gallery Berlin and runs through July 2015. Further information at: www.mdf-berlin.de. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org