Small and window-less, its thick walls covered in white paint, the room contained a display of black and white photographs. Looking at the images in that space, I really felt the deeply intimate connection of the photographer to the dying woman in the prints.
The photographs were of writer Susan Sontag who lost her second battle with cancer. The person behind the lens was her partner, photographer Annie Leibowitz.
The visuals were part of the latter’s exhibition called ‘Annie Leibovitz: A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005’, which was held at the C/O Berlin im Postfuhramt in 2009.
They also remain for me among the most striking photographs I associate with the Postfuhramt, now no longer serving as an exhibition space.
A large, rambling three-storied building, the Postfuhramt once housed the Prussian Imperial Post Office.
Its outside is imposing, all red bricks and ornamentation a la Early Italian Renaissance. I must confess I never lingered to examine it closely.
What was inside was always too exciting.
C/O Berlin occupied it for seven years until 2013, organising wonderful photography exhibitions there.
Inside were rooms of various sizes linked by long corridors and creaky staircases. In the 19th century, they served various functions including post office, telephone exchange, classrooms and living quarters.
Despite having been restored only in simplified form after WWII destruction, they made for an atmospheric exhibition space. It is for this reason that the photographs that I saw there are forever associated with that space.
Take the room that contained the images of death in the Leibovitz exhibition. The room was tucked in a corner upstairs, separate from the rest of the largely celebrity images for which Leibowitz is famed.
I had not read about those photos beforehand.
It therefore took me awhile to figure out what it was I was looking at. I was extremely moved.
The images are also pivotal to the exhibition, for according to Leibowitz in a New York Times interview, it was the death of Sontag in 2005 that led her to incorporate personal images in a book on her work.
The exhibition, first held in the US in 2006, is named after and based on that publication.
Meanwhile, the larger rooms showed off Leibowitz’s iconic Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair shots. These included the one of Yoko Ono/John Lennon taken hours before Lennon was murdered in 1980, and the one of the naked heavily-pregnant Demi Moore that outraged a 1991 world.
Since then, these images have taken on such a life of their own that in 2009, they almost looked anachronistic and stilted. What’s more, blown up, they actually did not impress more than their magazine-sized versions. And yet, their indelibility was indisputible.
Meanwhile, a long corridor upstairs played host to rows of small photos, including images that had been enlarged for the exhibition. It was delightful, giving me the feeling of being in a studio looking at a process of photo selection or editing at work.
Leibowitz also had a massive landscape photo hanging in a massive hall. It surprised me as I never knew she took anything but portraits. The photo wasn’t great – rather too grainy and flat, but the monumentalism of the hall made it monumental and seared the whole in my memory.
It is also thanks to C/O Berlin that I got to reflect on the turn of the century as viewed through the lenses of photojournalism greats.
Sontag deeply admired one of them, of whom she said, “.. no one has surpassed – in breadth, in directness, in intimacy, in unforgettability – the gut-wrenching work produced by Don McCullin.”
In 2009/2010, McCullin’s retrospective, ‘The Impossible Peace, 1958-2008’, laid out the meaning of war in the rooms of the Postfuhramt. I would enter each room, and in the intimacy of that space, look one by one at the black and white images on the walls, and learn what humans find it in their means to do to each other.
In two decades of being on the front, McCullin told stories that are forever synonymous with wartime documentation – the shellshocked US Marine in the Vietnam War, the albino starving child victim of the Nigerian-Biafran War.
But no less powerful were his images of the underbelly of his native Britain, the shots which bookended the war years.
Posed in a bombed building were the Guvnors, a violent gang with whom McCullin was friends. Dark, moody Winter landscapes bore the brush strokes of his war experiences, as did his images of the lives of the downtrodden.
Of the last, a celebrated portrait was that of a tramp who stared out inscrutably from a dirt-encrusted face. The gaze was different to that of the shellshocked soldier, but it pierced the soul of the viewer in the same way. This was Humanity presented with great compassion.
In the centre of the room were issues of the British Sunday Times, the newspaper which supported McCullin for 18 years, enabling this journalist to do his great work.
The print was yellow, but the power of the images were as gripping and relevant as when they were taken; it remains a world that still has not learned not to war and not to disregard society’s most destitute.
And so, the photojournalist’s work is never done.
This was evident in the showcasing of the world’s poorest – slum-dwellers – in another compelling exhibition at C/O Berlin. ‘The Places We Live, a Photo Installation’ by documentary photographer Jonas Bendiksen ran concurrently with McCullin’s retrospective.
The multimedia installation did not ‘use’ the Postfuhramt‘s space in the same way as the other exhibitions. And yet, the space was central to my experience of it.
Going from lighted rooms into a very dark space, I remember only white spotlights that showed the entrances to the black tents in which the installations were held.
Above was blackness and a sense that there was a ceiling somewhere up there. But it felt very high up to me, which focussed all my senses on what was within the flaps.
In each tent was a life-sized ‘room’ whose four walls were built of images projected on the canvas. The rooms were from slum dwellings in Jakarta, Mumbai, Nairobi and Caracas.
Sitting in each tent, I ‘experienced’ various homes. It was a rare opportunity – impossible in real life – to scrutinise everything in detail and in their actual dimensions: ingeniously-fashioned shelves, proudly displayed photographs, certificates and gods, carefully-stacked belongings.
And often, the inhabitants were right there too. Their voices were also literally audible through recordings, albeit in translation, enriching my participation in their lives for that little while. And their lives, as with their homes, were full, meaningful and dignified even in the face of poverty and deprivation.
Bendiksen had spent 2005–2007 living with and photographing these communities. According to the accompanying literature, in 2008, a year after he completed his project, “(f)or the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural areas… (T)he number .. will soon exceed 1 billion.”
I left Germany before C/O Berlin was forced to move from the Postfuhramt in 2013. Luckily, the organisation found a new home in Amerika Haus, a 1950s Cold War edifice in which the changing relationship between the US and West Germany made its mark. This new home is excitingly different and the new setup is also more museum-like and professional.
But I am grateful to have experienced such great work in such a great space as the Postfuhramt. Sadly, the only images I have of the space are of the facade, to which I paid the least attention. For obvious reasons, no photography was allowed inside.
Therefore, this tribute is mostly wordy, and to end it, I return to Sontag.
“.. (P)hotographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe,” she wrote in her critical treatise on the subject, ‘On Photography’. “.. (T)he most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads ..” ω
The C/O Berlin homepage details its history, current and upcoming exhibitions and its Amerika Haus home.
The organisation’s relationship with the Postfuhramt is mentioned in the German Wikipedia entry of the latter, which also highlights the special features of this protected monument.
‘Annie Leibovitz, A Photographer’s Life, 1990 – 2005’ was held at C/O Berlin on 21 February – 24 May, 2009. Samples of her work, including the book on which the exhibition is based, are on her agency’s website. New York Times ran a couple of interesting articles about the exhibition when it first opened in Brooklyn in 2006.
‘Don McCullin, The Impossible Peace, Retrospective, 1958-2008’ was held at C/O Berlin on 12 December 2009 – 28 February 2010. Samples of his work are on his agency’s website. A well-written review of his life is on photographer-collective site Utata.
‘Jonas Bendiksen, The Places We Live, Photography Installation’ was held at C/O Berlin on 12 December 2009 – 28 February 2010. An online version of the project is on its wonderful interactive website. Samples of Bendiksen’s work are on his homepage.