When Germany was first experimenting with democracy in the 1920s, the German philosophers and cultural critics Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer demonstrated that photography, invented nearly a century earlier, allows us to change our perspective on the world with unprecedented ease. By seeing images taken from a vast range of positions and viewpoints, we learn to assess any situation or setting from various angles. The invention of photography altered our understanding of the world by affording us vantage points that a single individual could not have inhabited physically before. For Benjamin and Kracauer, this previously unavailable method of switching our points of view corresponded to another equally important shift. The shift of vantage points as locations in physical space occurred at a time when people learned to switch between different value systems that, Kracauer writes, ‘have come to us in the forms of beliefs, ideas, or cultures, thereby of course weakening their claim to absoluteness’.1 Not even the most ambitious photographer can capture the whole world, or even an entire city from an all-encompassing bird’s eye view. At best, each photographer produces an aggregate of images, which a viewer may then assemble into a story. The same has happened with our understanding of the world. ‘So we find ourselves’, Kracauer noted, ‘increasingly surrounded by mental configurations which we are free to interpret at will’ (251). Or are we? Is it really true, as Benjamin and Kracauer insisted, that the modern age gave us not only photography, with its infinitely interchangeable viewpoints, each ‘iridescent with meaning’, but also the freedom to interpret the world from different and possibly even mutually exclusive perspectives (252)? Did the proliferation of photography, with shutters clicking like invading locusts ravaging the world, truly create a plethora of paradigms where earlier dominant master narratives had reigned? I think it is safe to say that Benjamin and Kracauer were correct, and that in today’s world people feel emboldened to view the same physical world through radically different ideological lenses. Socialist, democratic, liberal, conservative, nationalist, patriotic, liberationist, populist, communist, neoliberal, pessimistic — you name it. Or rather, someone has already named the options for you. There is no more reigning overarching narrative to explain the world’s contradictions and inequities, just as there is no single apparatus that can take a truthful picture of any significant part of the world. This latter fact, the absence of a single photographic perspective, is of course a result of the relativism in our political views. Today we know that even cameras, far from being neutral machines, exercise a political decision by visually framing a shot.
Brad Feuerhelm’s deceptively atmospheric photographs of Berlin activate this potential of photography to create what Benjamin called ‘a salutary estrangement between people and their surroundings … [that] paves a way for the politically educated eye, under whose gaze all intimacies are sacrificed in favor of the illumination of detail’.2 That is to say, Feuerhelm’s photographs of various sites in Berlin do not seek to paint a uniformly melancholic picture of the city’s bygone past, which would amount to what Benjamin called, critically, ‘the intimacies’ of auratic and atmospheric images.3 His photographs do not seek to represent the totality of Berlin, rather they persist as stilted or fragmented cuts, close-ups and truncated views. And yet they insist on being absolutely site-specific, in the sense of creating a unity, that of ‘Berlin’, that does not amount to union. ‘The most political decision’, filmmaker Wim Wenders wrote in a passage that serves as the epigraph to David Levi Strauss’s reflections on politics in photography, ‘is where you direct people’s eyes.’4
Feuerhelm directs our eyes to unconventional vistas, partly obscured glimpses, and small details of the city’s built environment to reveal that even stable towers built of stone and steel will become fragments and ruins. These atomized scenes are not reassembled into an over-arching pattern or historical vista. By placing disparate remainders of Berlin’s multiple pasts, and the plural of the past is key here, Feuerhelm opens up the past to a range of perspectives that do not culminate in the dominant viewpoint of our current moment. This viewpoint, to put it schematically, would insist that neoliberalism is the inevitable and ultimately best of all possible historical outcomes after socialism, communism and fascism had been implemented but were ultimately defeated and overthrown. Today’s dominant viewpoint does not refer here to the frequently misunderstood notion of an ‘end of history’, which is more complex in both Hegel and Fukuyama than is often suggested. It refers to the notion that our present circumstances allow us to judge the past from a perspective that reconciles the past’s contradictions, and it means that today’s perspective can bring sufficient change without upending the ordering of social relations. This is what Walter Benjamin continued to agitate against: the notion that the past has been settled, or that we can settle its inherent tensions today with the benefit of wisdom. For Benjamin, the past was inherently contradictory, just as every lived period is for the people in it, and by recognizing and not settling this contradiction we could hope to locate some alternative visions for our present time as well.
Photoausgabe 4 Minuten (Photos Ready in 4 Minutes) is Feuerhelm’s ironic take on the promise of photography to deliver our present moment to us as an immutable sliver of the past. Open your eyes, look into the lens, assume a pose, drop a coin in the photo booth’s slot and in this moment your likeness will be swept onward by the current of time as one of countless elements leading to the future. But this promise of embalming the past for future viewing is only one side of photography and, in doing so, puts our own image directly in the past perspective. The other promise is what Benjamin called the ‘salutary alienation’ and the ‘shattering of aura’ that the camera can produce by capturing people without the human touch of a painter’s brush or pencil, and that liberates us from the dream of a better future into which all of the past has been swept up.5 It is a liberation, in Benjamin’s view, because the fantasy that the future will resolve all of the past’s contradictions makes us blind to the contradictions of the present. Indeed, the fantasy has proven so fragile already that the past can be subsumed under one grand interpretation, where the devastations and also the apparent temptations for many millions of fascism and communism, which have scarred Berlin in the span of a few decades, are subsumed in the paradigm of today’s neoliberal world order. The return of populism, fascism, anti-democratic forces and aggressive nationalism shows that these political options had never really gone away.
Feuerhelm takes aim at the slogan Neue Welt (New World), which has been the name of a venue and beer hall in one of Berlin’s working-class districts for over a century. In his rendition, the sunrise-shaped slogan is backed by a typically grey Berlin sky, though this is actually a photographic effect. Feuerhelm’s decision to underexpose this site, which he also does for an image of the German flag on the previous page, results in two gloomy pictures that summarize the many promises held out to Berliners to establish a new world order. From the proclamation of the Weimar Republic on November 9, 1918, after the abdication of Emperor Wilhelm II as the first parliamentary democracy that united Germany into one nation, to January 30, 1933, when Hitler was appointed Chancellor after legitimate elections and a democratic process of forming a government via political coalitions, to October 7, 1949, when the German Democratic Republic was formed in the parts of Germany occupied by the Soviet Union, and finally to November 3, 1990, when today’s Germany was unified after its division following World War II: in each of these instances, Berliners were promised relief from the contradictions of the past in the name of an overarching ideology. Parliamentary democracy, fascism, communism and finally constitutional democracy all promised to resolve, once and for all, the tensions inherent in all social arrangements. Today, of course, we are no longer so naive as to believe that any one political system will deliver us from inequalities, injustice and untruth. Or are we? Perhaps we are no longer so naive, but we look down on the others, those who don’t think like us. Photography, as Benjamin and Kracauer argued, and Feuerhelm puts into practice, is the mechanical means of guarding us against the ever-present temptation to consider our own historical moment and our own viewpoint to be the most perspicacious, the best informed, the most balanced, the true and the just. Feuerhelm’s Berlin is a Berlin of abandoned sites, of debris next to industrial structures that look eternal and yet will inevitably crumble and fall. The faint reflection of a face in a pane of glass and the two alabaster faces printed in grainy grey, which belies the idea that black-and-white photographs are less realistic than color, show that as much as we’d like to think we are agents of our fate, our circumstances can also turn us into thin shadows and mere props of history.
Next to Feuerhelm’s severely cropped image of East Berlin’s iconic, bulbous television tower, which had served as a symbol of communism until the late 1980s, there are several small details that appear unidentifiable at first glance. The tower in the distance is twinned with a steel post with no obvious function as if to underline that to erect tall structures that dominate the skyline — and the television tower remains Germany’s tallest structure — is a largely symbolic rather than purposeful exercise. There are shots of polished boots on narrow display shelves, a hook or metal doorstop, two square towers next to untrimmed shrubbery. Another sequence zooms in on key holes, bullet holes, a hole in a weed-choked spot, and an opening torn into a wall revealing a lone birch tree on the other side. Indeed, this remnant is a piece of the wall that once divided Berlin, now habitually quite literally capitalised as the Wall after capitalism, one story goes, tore it down. These details, in the spirit of Roland Barthes’s ‘punctum’, disrupt photography’s tendency to package information into knowledge (or ‘studium’), which numbs rather than sharpens our senses and merely confirms what we already know rather than provide new insights.6 The many jagged edges in Feuerhelm’s images do not convey specific information about what happened here. They suggest, more viscerally than cognitively, like a few pieces of a vast puzzle, that it is nearly impossible to put this city back together again. Benjamin famously referred to history as a desolate ‘heap of rubble’ (Trümmerhaufen) and left it for his readers to decide whether wholeness could ever be restored from these shards, which would also mean properly remember-ing the dead.7 In Feuerhelm’s images the faces do not depict individuals the photographer saw or interacted with, but the interchangeable faces used in advertising, and thus only represent simulacra. These faces serve only to communicate things for sale. Here the human, as in most of the photography that surrounds us in contemporary society, is put in circulation as currency.
For the past to become history, many of the details that can be known must be subsumed in a larger story, and most of the available information must be turned into knowledge. The resulting larger story or paradigm can account for extraneous, unknown, and invisible aspects of reality precisely by declaring them to be irrelevant to what really happened. The organization of past evidence into history does not mean that everything must be accounted for. Michel Foucault showed that powerful historical accounts are by no means simply tales of control and domina-tion, but that historical accounts can accommodate difference and otherness by inventing new categories, the way a city zones some sites to be off-limits, reserved for refuse or to house marginalized human life which is thus at once excluded and contained. Thus Feuerhelm presents massive towers next to pockmarked walls, stains, and poorly covered bags of cement, because no single element, not even the tall towers, dominates Berlin’s cityscape in a way that neatly sorts everything else into importance versus irrelevance, historical truth versus subjective memory. But he does not suggest that these extraneous details can successfully subvert our current pers-pective. Is a dirty water-impregnated pillow really as important as a graffitied neolassical ruin drowning in weeds? Feuerhelm wields his camera not to bestow significance by framing one sight over others but to show that the act of framing a shot is as important as what has thus been framed. By creating an unsettling equivalence between such disparate things, which Benjamin in his assessment of photography had considered salutary for granting us sufficient emotional distance from reality to assess it truthfully, Feuerhelm activates the past rather than freezes it.
If I activate Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer’s celebration of photography as liberating us from the fantasy of one dominant ideology to look at Feuerhelm’s photographs, I do so in order to highlight his approach as politically motivated, but not in the sense of providing another more inclusive framing that corresponds to a better political solution. His work adheres more closely to failure than to any redemptive hope that by including the detritus of the past we will arrive at a better politics for our present. His stance is quite close to Walter Benjamin’s idea that the only way to read a city is allegorically; that is, by treating the details as harbingers of other, but not necessarily better, conditions. But Feuerhelm’s images are suffused by deeper pessimism than the work of Benjamin, whose approach to history is animated by the hope that it is possible ‘to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger’.8 By looking at the past not as a bygone memory but as an image still pregnant with unrealized potential, Benjamin hopes to counter the conformism of our present moment. Feuerhelm undercuts even this hope. His highly stylized images challenge the viewer to encounter elements on their own terms without hinting at a hidden revolutionary or redemptive potential. In an astute essay published in 2003, written about images made after the terror attacks of September 11 in New York City, David Campany warned against stylized photographs of the ruins and traces left by collective violence. Such empty images of sites that show only the aftermath of destruction but no actual occurrence could numb our capacity for critical thought and action. ‘The danger’, Campany wrote, ‘is that it can also foster an indifference and political withdrawal that masquerades as concern. […] There is a sense in which the late photograph in all its silence, can easily flatter the ideological paralysis of those who gaze at it with a lack of social or political will to make sense of its circumstance.’9 Feuerhelm’s images are just resistant enough to the viewer’s potential enjoyment not to equate an ideological paralysis with a lack of political will. Campany rightly warns against political paralysis, but Feuerhelm is skeptical of any political engagement, since even radical ideas that do not change the way our system is set up in its entirety would continue politics as usual. His images, like other images of historical devastation, avoid the danger spelled out by Campany by referencing ruins, shards, fragments and man-made debris as markers of a violence that sticks out in our present, even before it is turned into a memorial of the bad times we have thankfully left behind. Walter Benjamin considered the absence of an overarching ideology, as a vehement and uncompromising critic of fascism, as a strength. He worried that images which promise ideological cohesion cover over the ambiguities that led to the rise of fascism in the first place. This does not mean, as Campany fears in the context of some contemporary photography, that such images would lead to moral indifference or political inaction. It also does not result in a postmodern relativism where all political positions are of equal standing. Feuerhelm’s pictures are startlingly textured and often gorgeously composed, as if the surface of ruins could comfort us the way gently falling snow covers a man freezing to death. This compositional strength does not anesthetize us but teaches us that Berlin’s urban environment was built via many incremental decisions, most made in the belief that they were correct, true, and legitimate. We can learn from it that our own political positions are similarly formed because we believe them to be correct, true and legitimate, but that this belief, as soon as it becomes immune to critique, can become a deadend indeed.
1 Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Photography’, in Classic Essays on Photography, ed. by Alan Trachtenberg (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), pp. 245-268, (p. 251). References to page numbers hereafter in parentheses.
2 Walter Benjamin, ‘A Brief History of Photography,’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, ed. by Michael Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2003), pp. 507 -530, p. 529. Translation modified.
3 Benjamin, ‘A Brief History of Photography,’ op. cit., p. 519.
4 David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes: Essays on Photography and Politics (New York: Aperture, 2003), (no page number).
5 Benjamin, ‘A Brief History of Photography,’ in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, op. cit., p. 519. Translation modified.
6 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p.32.
7 Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Walter Benjamin: Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken 1968), p. 257.
8 Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, op. cit., p. 257.
9 David Campany, ‘Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of “Late Photography”’, first published in David Green ed., Where is the Photograph?, Photoworks/Photoforum, 2003.
'The Rubble of History (also know as Berlin)' by Ulrich Baer, originally published in 'Dein Kampf' by Brad Feuerhelm. Published October 2019.