In the realm of images

Berlin’s Museum of Photography near Zoo Station is the largest of its kind in Germany. It’s a visual rush on 2,000 square metres of exhibition space

Dr. Ludger Derenthal © Annette Koroll

Dishevelled individuals with sleeping bags, shopping trolleys and plastic bags are waiting for a warm meal at the Bahnhof Zoo mission next door. This means that anyone wanting to get into the Museum of Photography usually has to pass these less fortunate people on their way in. Here, where one experiences a reality of life in Berlin up-close, is exactly where this museum belongs. Rather than on some isolated ‘Museum Island’, this museum belongs amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday commuters, tourists, the homeless and business men and women in sharp suits. It’s also where the odour of the Zoo Station corridors can be quite strong – and where somebody is always asking for a cigarette. Photography is at home here, where life reveals its rather lacklustre side. Helmut Newton, who became famous as a photographer in an entirely different world, loved the idea that his life’s work would be exhibited here one day.

“This building was also the last thing Newton saw when he fled his hometown in 1938”, notes Ludger Derenthal, director of the Photography Collection at the Kunstbibliothek (Art Library), which is joined with Newton’s foundation under the umbrella of the Museum of Photography. Derenthal is a thoughtful man who phrases his sentences with casual elegance and who has countless stories to tell about the building he’s managed for 13 years. Built in 1909 as an officers’ casino for the Prussian army, it was the site of roaring balls in the magnificent ‘Emperor‘s Hall’ and military exercises in the cellar. “In the early years of West Berlin, the building was the nucleus of many of the city’s museums and later a depot for the Alte Nationalgalerie”, explains Derenthal. Images from the beginnings of photography to the present day – works of art as well as documentary and architectural photography – have been collected and exhibited here since 2004. For example, the current exhibition shows photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution in China. “The photograph”, Derenthal notes, “is a fugitive medium”. Unlike for written documents, Germany has no state institution responsible for the collection and preservation of image media. In other words, this museum also functions as an archive of images from 1839 to the present day. This archive reflects the changes that have occurred in the realities depicted, but it also reveals the transformation that has taken place in photography as an art medium. Digital photography is also being archived and at some point will be put on display – perhaps as part of the two or three annual exhibitions in the former ballroom, the Emperor‘s Hall.

But is such a museum even necessary today? Especially in an age in which the internet provides us with access to millions of images at a moment’s notice? Derenthal smiles and speaks of the “aura” and “charm” radiated by the original image: “Something happens with the observer”, he argues. His own office is dominated by a large-scale photograph of a dreary pine forest on one side and a wall of shelves filled with picture books on the other. As he looks at an old black-and-white photograph from 1890 showing nothing more than Kings College in Cambridge, Deren-​thal reads the image like a book, capturing details such as the two men with the lawn roller and a sky full of clouds: “When I look at photographs like this, I always have new questions”, he says. Sometimes he finds answers, but often enough the images leave him wanting. Either way, the fascination remains. (mse)


Michael Sellge
Kluge Köpfe 2017