Arwed Messmer interviewed by Rory MacLean
Arwed Messmer was born in Schopfheim in south west Germany. As a teenager he was obsessed with steam locomotives, travelling to East Germany to see – and photograph – them before they were replaced by diesels. The experience instilled in him an understanding of the inevitability of change, and – after studying photography at the Fachhochschule Dortmund – led him to move to Berlin.
“History has always been central to my work,” he told me on a sunny afternoon in his Mitte studio. “I have always been interested in German history, and the division of the country, and there’s no other city which gives a sharper focus on our recent history.”
After an early series on East German landscapes, Messmer began to explore the topography of Berlin. No other European city has repeatedly been so powerful, and fallen so low. No modern capital has so often reinvented itself, after the first and second wars, under the Nazis, with the building and fall of the Wall. In 1992 Messmer set about recording the metamorphosis of Potsdamer Platz. His aim was not simply to mark the architectural changes, but rather to place the changes into historical context, to see a site both as it was in the past and as it is today.
As well as the streets, Messmer began to explore the archives, many of which had been separated throughout the Cold War, acquiring unique insight into the city’s photographic history.
“I began to be so inside Berlin. I could look at an old picture and almost feel myself to the exact spot where it had been taken.”
He started to assemble Anonyme Mitte or Anonymous Heart, a collection of historical and contemporary photographs – with text by Annett Gröschner – that reaches into the heart of Berlin Mitte. It’s a work that – even before publication – has touched Germany’s collective memory.
“During my research for the book, I happened on forgotten photographs of Fritz Tiedemann,” Messmer told me.
In 1950 – with the rubble cleared from the Second World War and reconstruction about to begin – the East German government commissioned Fritz Tiedemann to photograph the eastern sector of the ruined city. The authorities wanted a record of the blank canvas on which their new socialist capital would be built.
“Most post-war images of Berlin were, for obvious reasons, propaganda,” Messmer told me. “What makes Tiedemann’s pictures unique is that they had no such propaganda aims. They were taken for technical purposes and never intended to be seen in public.”
On a large format camera in high-quality black-and-white, Tiedemann captured the rickety ruin of the Brandenburg Gate, the barren wasteland around Schloßplatz as well as all but deserted Prenzlauer Berg streets. Most excitingly – to give his employers a 180 degree view – he panned his camera between shots, creating panoramic images.
Messmer’s genius, and that of the Berlinische Galerie’s archivists and directors, was to spot the value of the images and to collaborate on mounting an amazing exhibition. Over two years Messmer pieced together the original negatives – digitally combining individual shots into breathtaking, six-metre wide panoramic prints – and created a dazzling portrait of Berlin as it has never before been seen.
Over 50,000 visitors flocked to So Weit Kein Auge Reicht (As Far as No Eye Can See), making it the gallery’s most successful, self-generated exhibition.
“People came from all over Germany to see the show,” said Messmer. “I believe part of the reason for its success is that the audience was touched by the disability of the city in the images. We had the chance to get a true view of Berlin in the early ‘fifties. The images became a part in the puzzle of our collective memory.”
Equally powerful is Messmer’s transformation of documentary images into highly-realistic synthetic creations. In the stitching together of the individual shots – between which Tiedemann had often moved his camera – Messmer needed to adjust perspective and move overhead wires and lines of kerbstones.
Anonyme Mitte – which includes a number of Tiedemann’s photographs – is to be published later this month by Verlag für moderne Kunst Nürnberg. “Economically the project is a catastrophe,” Messmer told me with a laugh. “The research has taken me years. I’ve had to cover the cost of both the graphic designer and the English translation. I’ll be lucky just to break even.” He goes on, “But even before its publication Anonyme Mitte spawned the Tiedemann exhibition. It encouraged the Berlin Senat to support my work. And I am hoping – I have the meeting tomorrow – it will lead to a new exhibition based on photographs of the Wall the like of which no one has seen before.”
Messmer showed me the photographs and – especially in this year of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Wall – they are sensational.
“My wife asks me from time to time if we should live somewhere else. At the moment it's hard to imagine leaving Berlin because the city is my subject. But you can never say never in this life!"