GDR 1990

It was a cold and drizzly morning typical of Berlin in November when I decided to leave the event that had brought me to the former and future German capital.

Berlin consisted in the 80’s rather a conglomerate of slums more or less left to their own devices, all very left-wing, very dirty in comparison to other cities in West Germany: a world of squatters, punks, all kinds of unsuccessful artists, and other prototypes of the nightlife scene, which only existed in this city, as it was the only German city that boasted no closing time in the bars. This mix of very specific individuals was largely due to the fact that for the inhabitants of Berlin, as a city demilitarized by the Allies after the war, there was no military service, which at that time in the rest of the Federal Germany was compulsory and lasted 2 years. Anyone who wanted to avoid this service to the state had to move to Berlin and many opted for this option.
All in all, it was a rather boring city, if you were not into drugs in general or cheap alcohol in particular. Its character as a democratic island in the middle of communist Germany made it difficult to access, the controls on the two transit highways to get to the city from federal Germany were frightening and the mandatory border crossings that had to be passed to access the city were desperate.
Everything changed overnight. Already in 1998 the border crossings had fallen down. As a result, there was freedom of movement in all directions, for West and East Germans alike. Before the shocking events of 1998, the latter could not even enter West Berlin without special permission from the communist authorities.
Taking advantage of this new freedom of movement, of which no one knew for sure if it would last, I decided to take the car and leave the city heading north, to the East Sea. Wismar or Rostock were the cities to choose. I decided for Wismar, because it was smaller and closer to Hamburg, which would be my next destination.
I have to confess that at no time I was aware of the historical dimension of this act: leaving Berlin, the island city, passing through the desolate border controls of what was still the GDR (German Democratic Republic), i.e. crossing the iron curtain without the slightest bureaucratic friction, was, from today’s point of view, quite a feat. The omnipresence of the socialist authorities had disappeared, leaving behind endless posters glorifying the party’s (SED) achievements and the fraternity with beloved Russia, the guarantee of eternal socialist peace.
No sooner had I left the past and future capital behind than I plunged into the rural world of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. The rain fell lightly but persistently on the cobblestone streets of the towns and villages that passed by my window. The predominant colors were brown and gray in a myriad of shades. Gray was the preferred color of these countrymen, it seemed. There was practically no other dye for houses, farmhouses or cars. The cobblestone streets were completely covered with mud from the rain. When passing through the puddles the wheels splashed the adjoining walls with a thick brownish mud. At the height of one meter all these facades turned from the inevitable gray to brown in a short gradient of splashes and leaks, as if the whole town had been drenched in coffee up to this point.

Leaving the town of Rheinsberg in the direction of Wittstock, which was on the way to the coastal town of Wismar, I got lost.

Those were times without GPS or Smart-Phone. The road map I was carrying was not very detailed with these lost towns of the German Democratic Republic or in short “DDR”. In the weather, not even the socialists resorted to the streets, with or without the obligatory flags and banners.

Following the road, which looked more promising to me, a barrier suddenly appeared with its corresponding soldier with machine gun in hand and stopped me. I stopped a little scared because at this historical point of the year 1990 nobody knew for sure if the Russians and the Americans were not going to form an all-out war.

The guy with the Kalashnikow approached my window and asked me, with the hard accent that Russians usually put on German, where I wanted to go. I, scared to death of ending up as one more victim of the East/West conflict, told him the truth, but not without first covering the camera on the passenger seat with my raincoat at very high speed: that I was going to Wittstock and that I was lost, and if he could show me the way.

The soldier walked away from the car without further ado, cranked open the pole, signaling me with his free hand to go ahead. When I passed him with a confused expression he told me, or shouted, maybe something in between in a loud voice, that yes, yes, Wittstock was ahead.

Incredulous, I rolled up the window and followed the indicated path without taking my hand off the rain jacket next to me.

After a few minutes, I calmed down to the point where I could light a cigarette with my hand on the rain jacket.

It was a strange, desolate and to some extent surreal landscape.

A wide mud track with tracked heullas led to a nearby forest and cut it in two with a wide gash. The muddy track or country road was lined with numerous black and white painted concrete posts, some of them at a 45 degree angle, most of them vertical. On the horizon that appeared as I left the tiny forest behind us, unintelligible structures of these poles stretched out, limiting the virtual spaces between them.

From time to time a Russian army truck or an armored vehicle would cross my path. The truth is that it was such a terrifying impression, that at first I did not dare to photograph. I completely discarded to take pictures of soldiers or tanks or military stuff that appeared in my path. But those poles added to the grayness of the landscape and the absurdity of the situation aroused my concern. Dissimilarly I slowed down, picked up my camera and took some shots from the moving car.

It must be remembered that these were analog times, the sensitivity of the film used was not very high and photographs taken from a moving object were almost always blurry and shaky. To avoid any disappointment of this kind after developing the film, which was quite frequent in those days, I decided to stop at the edge of the track. I did this several times, always very careful not to be seen by any soldier or in the vicinity of one of the several sentry posts I passed along the way.

Back home, I developed the films. The truth is that I didn’t have much hope that anything good or relevant to my artwork would come out of it. The conditions were very unfavorable and difficult, and I had been too nervous to concentrate, something essential, from my point of view, to make a good photographic series.

After the first review of the contact prints, I decided to make a manipulation in the process of enlargement and development on paper to return some of the drama to the moment experienced.

This manipulation consisted of putting a semi-transparent onion paper over the photographic paper before projecting the negative for exposure (I know that this information is only useful for someone who has an idea of the analog processing of photography). By lightly rubbing the onion paper, it adhered more or less partially to the photographic paper. The adhered areas did not diffuse the projection and the image was sharp. On the other hand, the non-adhered areas diffused the light of the projection and, depending on the distance from the photographic paper, generated more or less noticeable blurring.

The result is, and here again I am addressing those who do not have this specific knowledge, that the photographs on paper have blurred and sharp areas and the result could be manipulated by the process described here.

This effect, in my opinion, gives a more surreal character to these photographs and they match better with my impression of that historical moment than the initial prints without this manipulation.

It's art. Take your time.