An Exploratory Walk Along the Berlin Border in January 1959
It was a cold January morning in 1959 when East Berlin photographer Konrad Hoffmeister set out to explore the border running through his city—one of the front lines in the entire world where two enemy forces faced one another. Unlike in Korea, however, no bullets were fired initially in Cold War Berlin. Crossing from East to West and West to East was still possible without risking one’s life—by simply moving from one side of the street to the other, crossing over a bridge, or passing through a gate. Barely two years later this changed completely. Barbed wire stretched across locations where Hoffmeister photographed the border along his walk; stone-by-stone a wall began taking shape that would ultimately divide Berlin in half for nearly three decades.
The route of the photographer passed through all four sectors: the French, the British, the American and, of course, the Soviet. Around Bernauer Strasse he began taking pictures, he then walked along the sector border to Kieler Bridge and from there south through Tiergarten to Potsdamer Platz, then headed east along the front line via Checkpoint Charlie to Schlesisches Tor. His attention was rarely focused on the busy crossing points of the still-open border. Rather, his photographs feature walls, fences, and trenches, as well as the omnipresent warning and propaganda signs of the mutually hostile occupying forces and their German allies. A pale light illuminates the wintery landscape through which the border passes; the atmosphere is icy. Despite the high volume of crossings between East and West, only a few solitary people are visible in the images. The photographs not only document the situation at the time but also seem visionary—at least to today’s viewer—like a harbinger of future events.
Hoffmeister’s photographs are without question a result of the intensifying of the recent East-West conflict following an ultimatum by Soviet party leader Nikita Khrushchev, who two months earlier had demanded that Western powers withdraw from Berlin and West Berlin be turned into a “demilitarized”—one might also say defenseless—“free city,” which according to his decree would exist independent of the Federal Republic and the GDR. Touted by Eastern propaganda as a “peace initiative,” the ultimatum triggered a major political crisis that led to the stand off between battle-ready tanks in Berlin and whose enduring impact was the Berlin Wall.
Konrad Hoffmeister (1926-2007), then thirty-two years old, was one of the few East German photographers who observed their era with sufficient skepticism, documenting it on his own independent of any official commission. Hoffmeister in no way rejected the goal of constructing a socialist state, but he found it unbearable that the Unity Party sought to stifle every independent thought, every deviating viewpoint, in its infancy. This is why he resigned from the SED in the summer of 1956 and was considered a “traitor” from then on. He immediately lost his job as an assistant professor of photography at the Weißensee School of Art and held no other teaching positions. But he managed to establish himself as an independent theater, film, and advertising photographer in East Berlin and to pursue his own artistic interests independently and with a great deal of anarchic spirit.
Repeatedly eyed suspiciously by the authorities, thousands of photographs were taken in just a few years and offer a realistic depiction of Berlin’s post-war reality in contrast to the official imagery. During his lifetime, the photographs, which can only be compared to the much-celebrated Berlin pictures of Arno Fischer, remained largely unknown. After his death, his estate was transferred to the image archive of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), where journalist and photography curator Mathias Bertram was the first to examine the negatives of all 14,000 Berlin-based images. Together with extensive background information, he published in 2014 a selection of 170 photographs in the photo book Konrad Hoffmeister: Von Panik kein Spur, released by Lehmstedt Verlag, which also features seven photographs of the exploratory border walk.
After a fresh look at the negatives, Mathias Bertram and Kirsten Landwehr added twenty images to the selection of photographs for the exhibition, which will now be presented publicly for the first time. Since only small-format copies of several of Hoffmeister’s images from this series have survived, a limited edition of seven silver gelatin prints created from digital negatives on Ilford Galerie FB Digital baryta paper in 28 x 40 cm or 21 x 24 cm format was produced for the exhibition.
The exhibition was organized in close partnership with the Prussian Heritage Image Archive (bpk), an agency of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which houses and maintains the estate of Konrad Hoffmeister and holds the rights to the photographs.
Aino Laberenz, Amira Fritz, Atlanta Rascher, branimir, Camille Vivier, Frederike Helwig, Katja Rahlwes, Kristin Loschert, Lottermann and Fuentes, Simone Gilges, Ute Mahler
March 23 — April 22, 2018
Opening Reception: Thursday, March 22, 7 pm
April 26 — June 30, 2018
Opening Reception: Wednesday, April 25, 7 pm