Photography and street art are two of my favourite things and Berlin street art has to among the best. I was invited to Berlin to meet the finalists of the prestigious LOBA Awards and to try my hand at photographing street art with the Leica TL2. Housed in a stylish yellow leather case, it’s an intriguing mix of retro style and modern technology. There are touch screen controls and high tech features such as Wi-Fi transfer and 4x video. I loved the slow-mo effect when filming! Paul and I have long been fans of Leica lenses for their precision but I’d never tried a Leica camera before. All their cameras are handmade at their factory in Germany and the quality really shows. I’d had a tutorial at Leica’s Mayfair store on Bruton Place but thankfully it’s easy to use once you get the hang of it.
Leica Oskar Barnack Award 2017
First we had the chance to interview the winners, Terje Abusdal and Sergey Melnitchenko, at the gallery exhibition in Neue Schule für
Photografie. The overall winner of the awards, Terje Abusdal, has documented the lives of the Finnskogen ethnic group in Norway. His series, “Slash and Burn” portrays the lives of the Finnish descendants, also known as Forest of the Finns. Their 17th century ancestors originally used slash and burn techniques to clear agricultural land and the photos have an eery quality, reflecting their former shamanic rituals.
Sergey Melnitchenko won the Newcomer award and got into photography when he had a tongue piercing and his Grandma said she’d buy him a small camera if he removed it! Born in Ukraine, he currently lives in China and whilst working as a dancer there, he took fascinating portrait photos of his fellow dancers for his series “Behind the Scenes”.
London based photographer Vera Torok was one of my favourite finalists, with her innovative techniques. She accidentally loaded a pre-used film into her Leica L6 and exposed it twice. The series of photographs is entitled “Accidentally on Purpose” and aims to show the complexity of living in a digital world, continually surrounded by information.
Patrick Willocq also wowed with his colourful series of photographs, “You Cannot Pick a Stone with One Finger”. The French photographer worked closely with the Dagomba, an ethnic tribe living in Ghana to produce these vibrant images.
Then we walked to the evening venue, the atmospheric St Elisabeth Kirche, a former church that was lit up beautifully for the awards ceremony – Berlin at night looks as great as during the day. Dr Andreas Kaufmann – majority shareholder and chairman of the supervisory board, Leica Camera AG gave an interesting talk about the founder of Leica and awards namesake, Oskar Barnack. This visionary inventor realised that photos with a human element, such as someone running into your shot accidentally, can be much more interesting than “perfect” images. if someone runs into your shot. He photographed his children and the shots had a lot more life than most at the time. He also documented catastrophes, street scenes and events including reportage on local floods. The Leica was introduced in the 1920s and Oscar invented new aesthetics like cropping people to the side of the frame rather than always having them in the centre.
Beautiful Places in Berlin
Earlier in the day, I had time for a quick walk around Berlin. I haven’t been for many years and was blown away by the majestic buildings and sense of history. Walking to Brandenburg Gate, I came across monumental museums and leafy parks. The most striking of these was the Tiergarten and the memorial for the 220,000-500,000 Sinti and Roma victims of Nazi genocide. Designed by Israeli artist Dani Karavan , it’s a circular pool with a triangular stone at its centre upon which a flower is placed daily. There’s a sense of calm and reconciliation about this place. The Leica TL2 really picked up on the nuances of light playing on the water and leaves.
It was here that the first person approached me to find out about my camera. He was to be the first of many, as I soon found out that it’s a real conversation starter!
Brandenburg Gate was built between 1788 and 1791 and has an impressive statue on top with the goddess of victory and four horses. The weather turned dark and stormy when I visited and my camera picked up on the mood perfectly.
It’s hard to imagine that the photos above and below were taken within a few minutes of each other. Clearly the weather in Berlin is as changeable as in London. The Reichstag dates from 1894 and is the meeting place of the German Parliament, known as the Bundestag.
The TL2 seemed to lend itself particularly well to architectural details, like the patterns on Oberbaum Bridge and the colonnaded walkways of the Neues Museum. There isn’t a viewfinder, which can be disconcerting in bright sunlight although it’s possible to buy a bolt-on. My particular Leica didn’t have a zoom lens, which actually helps you to learn how to crop your photos better. Being a mirrorless model, it’s extremely light and fast to focus and shoot.
Flowers and a fountain gave me the perfect opportunity to attempt the bokeh effect for which Leica is famous. Bokeh is basically focusing on an object in the foreground such as a flower whilst deliberately blurring the background.
Berlin Street Art
The next day we were treated to a street art tour in the trendy Kreuzberg Berlin area with visual artist Nikolaus Schrot. There are some interesting artworks here, many of which were created by famous street artists such as OSGEMEOS. These Brazilian twins once both had a dream in which they saw all people as being yellow, so now their signature style incorporates yellow characters.
Some of the street art aims to make you think but as our guide said, there are often multiple possible interpretations. For example, The Pink Man depicts a giant man and a multitude of smaller men, but are they helping each other or fighting? Is the character in the giant’s hand going to be consumed by him and what could this mean? He’s a different colour to all the others so is he being singled out for being different and could this be a statement about the situation in wartime? Italian artist BLU leaves it up to you to decide.
At first glance, this street art might look like a couple embracing but look a bit closer and the figure on the right could be engulfing the other person…
I asked our guide how the street artists managed to create such huge paintings without detection. Apparently the larger artworks are commissioned by the local council and sometimes by restaurants. However it’s a fine line as the street art is causing property prices to rise and they want to keep the area accessible for locals. Amidst the urban landscape there are occasional pockets of green.
After our tour we headed to RioGrande for a quick riverside lunch of goulash and the obligatory German beer ;-). My final destination was the infamous Checkpoint Charlie. After East Germany built the Berlin Wall to stop the mass exodus of its citizens to the West, this famous sentry point was established in 1961 as a gateway for foreign tourists and Allied diplomats. It’s a bit bizarre to see the fake American soldiers who pose with tourists for photographs for a fee.
Sadly, Checkpoint Charlie was often the final destination for those trying to escape. At least 140 people died and tributes to some of the victims are displayed close by, as well as the photo of an unnamed American soldier. The Allies could not officially assist anyone trying to escape although American serviceman Eric Yaw did help Hans-Peter Spitzner and his daughter to flee in the trunk of his car. The wall was finally knocked down in 1989.
It’s moving to think that East and West Berlin are now reunited. Berlin street art is a unifying element thanks to the diversity of artists that you’ll come across in Berlin. The past should not be forgotten but like this vintage Trabant car reimagined by Thierry Noir, it has been infused with a new lease of life and colour.
Similarly, the variety of photographers entering the Leica LOBA Awards is heartening to see. I can see why the LEICA brand inspires so much devotion from it’s fans, and hope that you like the photos of Berlin. If you’re visiting the city, you can see all the finalists’ photographs at a free exhibition at the Neue Schule für Photographie until 15 October, when the exhibition heads to Rome.
Are you a fan of street art?