Rory MacLean meets Holger Biermann
Biermann, born in 1973 in Bremen, grew up in Henstedt, a peaceful and sleepy one-street village in Lower Saxony. His father was a sports teacher with a passion for woodcarving. His mother loved to draw and to work with clay. Every summer weekend his parents worked together in the garden, indulging their shared enthusiasm for topiary. 'I grew up thinking the whole world was a gentle and wonderful place, until I left Henstedt.'
With his interest in football, Biermann landed a first job as sports reporter in nearby Syke, and then Bild-Zeitung awarded him an internship and he moved to Berlin.
'From the moment I arrived in the city I felt inspired, by the possibilities, by the strange history, by the "ripped" architecture. There were countless stories for a journalist to uncover and to tell. On top of that, in Berlin people accepted me for who I am.'
For a time he moved to Bremen to write for Bild-Zeitung about the Bundesliga team Werder Bremen and then went on to the Springer journalism school. In 2001 a Carl Duisberg scholarship led him to New York where he worked for Springer Auslandsdienst and Aufbau, a journal for German-speaking Jews founded in 1934. In every spare moment, between work, Magnum Photos and the International Center of Photography, Biermann explored the city, snapping street scenes with his simple Canon SLR 'tourist' camera.
'I could hardly believe that I was there, in New York, full of energy and with time on my hands.'
On September 11th 2001 he was en route to work when al-Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center. 'My subway train stopped on 18th Street,' he recalled. 'I ran on downtown, used my press pass to get through the police lines, shot photographs until I ran out of film. I saw the second tower burning. When it fell I – along with thousands of others – was evacuated over the Brooklyn Bridge...' Biermann paused, recalling the horror of that September morning, remembering the cacophony of crashes and cries. 'That was the first time in my life I used colour film,' he told me, his voice subdued. 'I hadn't been able to buy any black-and-white in the panic.'
After 9/11, and with the economic downturn, Biermann lost his job. At home and abroad media outlets were cutting staff. Biermann stayed on in New York for more than two years, spending his savings, snapping thousands of evocative street photographs. In 2003 he moved back to Berlin.
'I didn't want to return to journalism. I decided to follow my heart, and to try to make it as a street photographer. At first I supported myself by working in kitchens. Then slowly I started to land freelance commissions: a newspaper assignment here, a gallery opening there. I created portfolios for actors. Somehow I've made it work.'
Biermann's Berlin photographs capture fleeting moments of city life: elderly women eat candy floss beneath the clouds at Tempelhof, Japanese tourists flash the peace sign at Checkpoint Charlie, a sleeping man lies under a plastic sheet on the banks of the Landwehrkanal, disco balls float above an open-air party during the Carnival of Cultures, a child dashes through a park behind giant soap bubbles.
His finest 40 black-and-white Berlin images have been self-published in Terrassen am Zoo. In addition Biermann has self-published a series of his New York photographs – including the haunted colour images of 9/11 – in Leaving Today. His other books include Before Revolution on Cairo and the soon-to-be published Don't Call Me, a series of portraits of New York women.
'The city is my studio. Often I spend whole days – six or seven hours – walking the streets, following my instincts, looking for the right composition, the right moment, the right image. A "street photographer" looks for the unusual in the usual. He lives for coincidences, for the moment when chaos merges into a powerful visual composition. He needs to be curious. He must want to explore life. To my mind, the anonymity of the big city is vital.'
Biermann – a gentle and humble man – acknowledges the influence of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Lee Friedlander, Daido Moriyama and – of course – Henri Cartier-Bresson. Like them he uses no tricks or special effects, and shoots only on film.
In recent years he has been artist-in-residence at Berlin's Lichtenberg Studios and at Aquarellhappening Tux in Austria. His work has been exhibited in solo and group shows in Berlin and Arles, most recently with collectives ParisBerlin and Miraprospekt, a Berlin-based showcase for independent photographers.
'At the beginning in Berlin I often felt alone, with no one to share my thoughts on street photography,' Biermann told me. 'In ParisBerlin and Miraprospekt I have the chance to work with like-minded people, to share our successes and disappointments. It's hard to have one’s work recognised, to sell it. To do this job you have to love what you are doing, and just keep going.' He sighed and added, 'I dreamed of being a photographer for most of my adult life. Today I am living that dream. This is my way through life.'