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Berlin Photography Festival
September 2005
Report by Fred Baldwin

For many years, photographers, curators and leaders of photography institutions around the world have anticipated Berlin becoming a major center for contemporary fine art photography. After all, Berlin is the capital of Germany, a country where the 35 mm camera was invented, the Bauhaus was created, and breakthrough films in the 20’s and 30’s were produced. As a center of mechanical innovation, optics and advanced chemistry, photography has been impacted worldwide throughout the 20th century by Germany.

The Berlin skyline is constantly changing

The Berlin Photography Festival 2005 that we have all been waiting for opened on September 23, 2005. This Berlin-born festival was organized by a passionate group of curators, photographers, a photo magazine publisher, volunteers, and non-profit organizations. In a way, the Berlin Photography Festival 2005 reflects general conditions in Berlin, a vibrant, energetic city that faces major financial difficulties. As in most places in Europe, cultural funding comes from state and city sources. U.S. style foundations do not exist in Germany so the brave souls who created this new event have had to stay alive on a battleground of competing interests, navigating a formidable bureaucratic maze while money is tight.

The Berlin Photography Festival 2005 opened with a large exhibition called After the Fact at Martin-Gropius-Bau and contained contemporary photography work from 34 artists and artists groups from 23 countries. The curator Jan-Erik Lundström, the director of the Bildmuseet at Umeå University, Sweden was the curator of this central exhibition of the festival. The theme of After the Fact deals with contemporary responses to the idea that photography is a media that documents information and experience. The 4 ¾ by 6 inch catalogue was well printed with 223 pages crammed with images from After the Fact and an esoteric text in German and English. For those who had the stamina to plow through the hordes of people who attended the opening, the event was a great success. Regretfully we did not stay in Berlin long enough to make a second trip to Martin-Gropius-Bau to have the leisurely viewing that After the Fact deserved. Our week in Berlin was inadequate to take advantage of more than a few of the 62 other independent photography exhibits. There is so much to see in Berlin.

Opening of After the Fact

One of the most important aspects of Berlin Photography Festival 2005 is the portfolio review called the Meeting Place. This three-day event closely follows FotoFest’s Meeting Place, including the name. It featured 20-minute reviews and provided the photographers with a range of 33 reviewers from Central and Western Europe and Russia. The photographers were mainly German. We saw one from Japan and two from South America. Wendy Watriss and I were the only North American reviewers. The photographers that we saw ran the gamut from a few beginners to many promising artists - a few of whom we would consider for exhibition at FotoFest. For a first time event, the Meeting Place was a great success. Not surprisingly, there were a few glitches but nothing that would not be easily correctable by the time Berlin Photography Festival 2007 comes around. Any problems were more than compensated by the good natured and helpful staff running the event, Julia Maier, her colleague Benjamin Füglister, and many others who did everything they could to take care of their guests.

The Meeting Place

The Meeting Place was held in an attractive ultra modern building called C/O Berlin - The Cultural Forum for Photography, a new facility developed by a photographer, architect and a graphic designer that supports a gallery, has a children’s program and generates its revenues by renting space for special events - high end corporate publicity, etc. It’s an ideal space for such activity. Founded in December 2001, it reflects the private entrepreneurial energy and optimism of the new Berlin spirit. The organizers of Berlin Photography Festival 2005 have managed to overcome many difficulties with their energy and commitment, including the arrival of the French in November 2004.

Entrance to CO-Berlin and the Meeting Place

Germany has been responsible for many cultural innovations; however it has not led the way with the photographic festivals. This phenomenon, a trend that has been increasing during the last 20 years, is a French idea. France produced the first photography festival in Arles in the 1970’s. Paris came up with Le Mois de la Photo, a photography Biennial that has graced the capital with photo exhibits since 1980. Both of these events served as an inspiration for FotoFest. The French favor photography festivals. At last count, there are seventeen of them in France.

Kai Bornhoeft at the Meeting Place

The French government is also very sophisticated about using French culture as a diplomatic tool and photography, French photography, is actively promoted worldwide with festivals and collaborations in places such as Brazil, China, Mali, and Russia. FotoFest has also received support for French projects (in contrast to U.S. cultural policy that has been relatively clueless compared to French, British, Dutch and German support for arts and photography abroad). It’s not surprising that the French appeared in Germany in November 2004 in the form of a Mois de la Photo in Berlin.

A handsome budget from the European Union (EU) made it possible to simultaneously interconnect photography festivals in two other European cities, Bratislava and Vienna in November 2004 to the Paris Mois de la Photo that has existed for 25 years in Paris. The French successfully created a strategy that draws on EU funding and promotes their cultural interests through top down political action.

Hallesches Tor subway station and canal

Not having attended the Berlin Mois de la Photo, I have no way of comparing how top down approach affected the quality of one event over the other. However, I did hear that the top down approach failed to create much excitement among Berlin curators and artists.

Berlin is a handsome city, with its famous parks and impressive new architecture that has risen out of World War II ruins and more recent Communist East German history. There was a time just after the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) when Wendy and I stood on a point of high ground and were able to view from one place, landmarks of 20th Century German history, references to events that changed the world. Today gleaming modern structures have replaced buildings that once served the Third Reich and the DDR. In the middle of a devastated clearing that resembled a huge leveled trash dump, the unmarked bunker that was Hitler’s grave is no longer visible. The view also included the winding Berlin Wall, cutting the city and its people between the regimes of the East and West. Today only a few remains of the wall are standing. This grim history lesson has now been effectively erased as Berlin inches its way to becoming the transcendent cultural capital of Europe, as it begins to solve its economic problems.

Part of the Berlin Wall

Ironically, Berlin’s problems have provided abundant housing and the city has become a magnet for artists who have migrated there from all over the world. There is a palpable excitement and special energy in the capital. Housing is inexpensive and there are many places for artists to set up studios on a modest budget. Consequently, there are many galleries devoted to kinds of work that young artists are doing. But conditions are tough so there are also lots of startups and closings. Nonetheless, the creative energy is strong and this has fueled the effort to create the Berlin Photography Festival 2005. But Berlin is a tough city according to the artists we met who are working there. I asked a Berlin curator why so many buildings and monuments are desecrated with graffiti. He explained that a significant number of the city's three million inhabitants are getting city support. I don’t know if this is the case but there are many people unemployed and many kids involved in gangs. There is a hellish amount of graffiti marring the handsome capital.

Grafitti building as art

There were various workshops and lectures that ran parallel to the Meeting Place. However, the timing made it impossible to take advantage of what sounded like interesting programs such as seminars for the Central/East European photography magazine editors. Because the festival was competing with a huge marathon run, it was impossible to get all the artists and reviewers in the same hotel. This was bad luck as there were a number of people who we wanted to meet but missed because of the arrangements. Our hotel - Hotel Johann, at Johanniterstr 8, is a very comfortable small hotel that serves an excellent breakfast. It’s in the Kreuzberg district.

Wendy and I had meetings in Berlin with a number of artists and cultural organizers. We visited the studios of artists Peter Riedlinger and Thomas Florschuetz. Peter is a young artist who is taking advantage of the very favorable conditions provided for artists by Humboldt University. Thomas, on the other hand is a well established artist living in a very comfortable accommodations with his Brazilian wife Carla, a well-known sculptor. We have known Tomas for almost 20 years, having exhibited his work in 1988 at FotoFest. We met with Leonie Baumann, Director of the New Society for Fine Art or NGBK (Neue Gesellschaft für Bildende Kunst), a progressive non-profit organization founded in 1969 in Berlin in a climate of social upheaval. Its founders envisioned NGBK as an alternative to conventional, hierarchically structured institutions, where each member would have an opportunity to participate in the process of decision and planning of their program. NGBK is one of the supporting and participating organizations of the Berlin Photography Festival 2005.

Peter Riellinger showing his portfolio to Wendy Watriss

We originally met Bernd Fechner (FOTOBILD05), a photography agent and cultural entrepreneur, in Birmingham, UK (Rhubarb Rhubarb) in August. We visited his studio to see the work of Bernard Edmaier. Like so many people involved in the arts in Berlin, Bernd had moved from Cologne to take advantage of the energy in the new capital.

Bernd Fechner showing work to Wendy Watriss

The experience of the festival was intense and rich, meeting new photographers, curators and publishers -- old friends like Enno Kauffauld, a critic/curator who we had worked with in the early 90’s, and new contacts like Frank Kalero, an energetic young Spaniard who lives in Berlin and puts out an impressive new photography magazine published in Barcelona called OjodePez Documentary Photography 02. Each edition is edited by a different person selected by Frank Kalero.

Frank Kalero and Katharina Platz

In spite of his busy schedule as one of the organizers of the festival, we saw a lot of Andreas Müller-Pohle, founder, editor and publisher of European Photography magazine. Russian curators Evgeny Berezner and Irina Tchmyreva were there for a seminar about Central/East European publications. We visited art spaces with Paula Luttringer, a great friend and an amazing Argentine photographer, and Berlin artist Katharina Mouratidi who had a strong outdoor exhibit on globalization at Potsdamer Platz. Katharina ferried us all over Berlin in her tiny Spanish car. Razvan Ion, the organizer of [artphoto]image.festival and publisher of Artphoto magazine in Romania was also with us.

Irina Tchmyreva and Evgeny Berezner at the hotel

Wendy Watriss and Paula Luttringer at the hotel

We fully expect to be back in Berlin for the next edition - Berlin Photography Festival 2007 .

Fred Baldwin

Photographs taken with Leica Digilux 2