Göran Gnaudschun’s Alexanderplatz

More than just bread and butter

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Kerstin Stremmel, 5 August 2014

In the long history of socio-documentary photography most of the focus has been on the emphasis with which photographers dedicate themselves to outsiders, those whom the rest of society views with a mix of ignorance and contempt, unless of course they happen to feature on photographs. Göran Gnaudschun’s book Alexanderplatz gives pause for thought.

Indeed, it has been quite some time since a photographer last took such a differentiated approach to their theme. Alexanderplatz opens with a panoramic view of the vast expanses of this inhospitable square in Berlin. It then proceeds to showcase the first of its protagonists in a warm blaze of lights, hazily hinted at, then one of the dogs that give their owners a measure of dependability and a sense of safety and security, then an embrace that is almost a clinch. Many portraits follow, and they reveal that Gnaudschun is no stranger to Alexanderplatz: photographs of groups; scuffles ignored by those standing by; light-hearted moments of revelling and splashing in a fountain; the sky over Berlin; a young girl’s profile illuminated by the penetrating light of a mobile; dogs frolicking in the snow; a dead rat. Moments of unrestrained tenderness alternate with depictions of violence, of cold and homelessness. In all probability the smart sequence itself would be enough to warrant the view that Alexanderplatz is a particularly accomplished book.

All images lie

After a while Göran Gnaudschun began to realise that accompanying texts made sense, and so he started to record conversations and jot down his observations. They are as differentiated and as sincere as the photographs, which he took between 2010 and 2014, an exceptional long-term project even though the author was always well aware that such a timeframe would barely suffice to sketch the portrait of people for whom time is seemingly an irrelevance. The fact that, as a former member of the punk band 44 Leningrad, he was granted access to the scene is a privilege which benefits us, as viewers and readers, first and foremost. The cost to the photographer himself were ties that became closer than planned, and life stories that came to haunt him in his dreams.

‘Of course images lie; they all do’ Gnaudschun once wrote about his previous book Longe, a report on the punk scene in eastern Germany. In Alexanderplatz he is even more particular about his choice of words when describing an encounter with one of the girls portrayed: ‘… I almost didn’t recognise her, because now it’s so often the case that I only recognise people from their photographs, because I’ve looked at the photographs too often, because I’ve worked on them too much, and because the reality which then gradually emerges exists only in the photographs (…). All portraits are unintentional lies that form in the minds of those who view the images. They see what the people portrayed in the photographs would like to be; they see what I’ve made of it; and they see whatever they inevitably associate with it.’

However, these doubts about the veracity of photography are no objection to the effectiveness of the photographs in their concentrated compilation, and the fact that the lyrics to the song Hurt by Nine Inch Nails spring to mind is not just a projection: ‘I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real’ – many of these images are about anger, a readiness to resort to violence, and pain, pain inflicted on oneself and, more importantly, inflicted by others.

The reader’s interpretation

While Göran Gnaudschun shows us many details of the scene at Alexanderplatz, some are left to our imagination; they take shape automatically inside the reader’s mind. Here he is for instance describing what happened when some sports equipment was stolen from a school near the square after one of its doors had been left unlocked: ‘More and more Alex kids are turning up with skates, scooters that are much too small, space hoppers, and all sorts of toys. Rarely have I seen them this high-spirited. Hank is pedalling a tricycle, with Alex on the back. Holding on tight to his shoulders. Goth girls are bouncing around on space hoppers, and punks are playing shuttlecock. The lightness of being. Making up for half an hour of lost childhood.’

The great achievement of this unpretentious book is not just Göran Gnaudschun’s wholehearted and unconditional sharing of his experiences, but also his willingness to dispense with the anecdotal, with what might have been and what might have produced beguilingly beautiful images. At one point Gnaudschun and the youths at the Alex are asked the name of the author of the novel Berlin Alexanderplatz by a group of pupils doing a school project. Gnaudschun hesitates, then has an ironic dig at the ‘benefits of his classical education’, earning him ‘grins all round’. Franz Biberkopf, the protagonist in Döblin’s novel, asks more from life than his daily bread and butter. And those portrayed by Göran Gnaudschun are not yet among those extinguished figures that have lived on the street for far too long; some of these youths are seeking a way out. When one of the young women tells the photographer she is expecting a baby boy, he wishes her all the best; but the path leading out of homelessness and into middle-class life is not an easy one.

Conditional form

In his essays Gnaudschun also mentions the other people who frequent Alexanderplatz, establishing the necessary link with ‘bright young urbanites’, ‘female office workers in their mid-twenties trying out some ring tones’, or school pupils left to choose between doing their homework or smoking pot. ‘Dignity’ is a word often misused within the context of socially committed photography. Göran Gnaudschun construes it according to Karl Kraus’s definition, namely as a ‘conditional form of what one would be if one could’.

Göran Gnaudschun: Alexanderplatz. Fotohof-Edition, Salzburg 2014. 218 pages, 90 colour plates, EUR 39.–