Tag Archives: Germany

Stars of Albania

Albania during the communist times. The country is totally sealed off from the outside world. Landowners have been expropriated by a radical collectivisation drive. “Exorbitant” capital goods have been confiscated. A kind of generalized paranoia is reigning all over the country. It is whispered that you can even receive the death penalty for having one chicken running around the house. When the smell of a fresh leaf of bread, baked for private consumption, reaches the nostrils the secret police (Sigurimi), the courageous baker will vanish into a labour camp.

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© Matthias Aschauer

Freedom of movement is something very abstract for Albanians. It is forbidden to move out of their home town without formal permission. Anyway, Albanians are not even allowed to have their own bike. In the 1980’ies there are only 300 cars driving through the streets of the Tirana.

The Albanians are the last of the Europeans to wake up in the so-called free world. Eventually, Enver Hoxha’s statue is toppled in december 1990.  Consumer goods and western values start flooding the country. In the years thereafter, the new economic is still very frail and there is social unrest but the spirit of the nation quickly shifts from “everything is ours” to “everything is mine”!

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© Matthias Aschauer

In times of uncertainty and chaos, it is natural for  human beings to look up for a star that will show the way to move on.  And here we have Sterne Albaniens (Stars of Albania), a very original photobook by Austrian photographer Matthias Aschauer. The title is beautifully explained in the introduction (David Staretz). The book is about stars that are guiding Albanians through the cultural shifts their country is undergoing.

To be more precise, it’s about one very specific star: the emblematic star of Mercedes-Benz. This is because – since the collapse of its stone age communism – Albania famously has attained the highest concentration of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in the world. It is estimated that 60 percent of the cars and trucks in the country are Mercedes-Benz! Sure enough, there is no room for discussion in Albanian families about about what should be number one on their priority lists. A Mercedes-Benz will always come before the washing mashine!

And the funny thing is that  Matthias’ book contains dozens of pictures made in the streets of Albania in 2010 and 2011 that (how did he do that?) depict ONLY Mercedes cars. Most of them are private cars but there are also taxis, learner cars, hearses, busses, vans…..

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© Matthias Aschauer

 

With their long noses, spacious trunks, solid doors, typical radiator grilles, chrome lines and big steering wheels they present themselves in everyone’s subconsciousness or dreams as archetypes of what a car should be. They are not only symbols of success and prestige but they also stand for total reliability, safety, durability and – most importantly- also sovereignity. All what is needed during the chaotic aftermath of the communist era, full of hardship and terror.

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© Matthias Aschauer

 

What I like about Sterne Albaniens is that it seems to be conceived as a book of typologies. The annotations with the pictures don’t mention the time and place where Matthias made the shots. Each picture is only provided with the official factory references and the period of construction of the  vehicles (e.g. Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (W211) 2002-2009). The main focus is on the wide variety of Mercedes-Benz types that he found in the streets.

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© Matthias Aschauer

As it goes in a book of typologies, there is no story line in this book. The sequence of Sterne Albanniens seems to be (at first sight) a purely random one. In a way this book brings to  mind the famous books of typologies from the German culture, like the ones from August Sander or the Bechers.

The concept of the graphic designers (Knis Steizinger and Simon Walterer) is maintained till the very end. In the back of the book all the references are grouped in an index. In a way, with its sober and neat outlook, they made the book also look like a prospectus for professionals. You may even say that the book design is reflecting the sober -German- design of the cars themselves. (BTW, the type that shows up most is the Mercedes-Benz W123 series (1975-1985), this oxymoronic ubiquitous luxury car of which you may have some good memories.)

At the same time, Matthias Aschauer offers us much more than a automobilographic overview of the different lines of executive cars, sedans or limousines that once have left the factory in Stuttgart. The book is also ethnographic. We get intriguing glimpses of the Albanians and how they behave in the public space. Time still seems to be on their side! We see many persons who are enjoying a friendly chat and the state of strolling idleness. In spite of the turmoil from which they are coming, in spite of the barrenness of their country, they seem to consider the public space as a very pleasant social space.

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© Matthias Aschauer

That there is time, also might have to something with the absence of economical drivers that allow the country to move on. But, as Matthias is showing, Albanians always keep up the good spirit and they have found their own stylish ways to move on. So, if the country is doomed to be some economic wasteland, I would say “Oh Lord, why don’t you buy them ……”

Thank you very much, Mr. Aschauer!

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1980. In Berlin.

Already from the title, we  know more than enough. This book will give us a ride to a city whose social conditions where unseen in the rest of post-war Europe. No other place in the West was more subventioned. In West-Berlin, there was all the modernity of the Free World but not its commercial compulsions. It was the ultimate magnet for those who wanted to explore alternative ways of living and thinking.  Nobody was asked to pursue any sort of ambitions.  There was no military service to fulfill, there were no financial traps. Artists and mere dreamers disposed of all the time they needed. It was kinky and it was for free. It was Europe’s wicked city!

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© Heiko Sievers

Heiko Sievers was born in West-Berlin and he was 28 years old when he worked in Michael Schmidt‘s Workshop for Photography in Kreuzberg. He published his work only in 2016 with Peperoni Books, 35 years after date: 1980. In Berlin.

As soon as we open the book, we find ourselves on the city’s public transport network. That is where nearly all of the photographs are made. We meet many old ladies. They look frail and lost in thought. We realize that we cannot ask too many questions. We also see many younger German citizens that are silently on their way to their workplaces, determined to fully restore the still tarnished name of their country. “Ran an die Buletten!” they seem to think. And we see some workers from far away countries, the brave pioneers of later migration waves. Heiko’s Germany had turned the warmonger’s page!

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© Heiko Sievers

But in 1980, Heiko choose not to focus on the successful reconstruction of the western sectors of Berlin. His images lead us beyond the immediate surroundings of a regular German guy and we discover the eye he had for the innumerable outsiders: all the creative people, the utopians, the visionaries and the artists that were drawn to Berlin. What mattered for the photographer, was the dynamics of this counterculture within his own. And he sympathizes with the counterforces!

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© Heiko Sievers

His style also moves beyond regular documentary realism and is highly subjective. About all the different kinds of people he photographed, he writes: “I have never found out what actually moved, oppressed or delighted them. I saw, or better still, found an “took” what corresponded to my sense of life in Berlin and what drew my attention as an image. Therefore the photographs are neither portraiture nor documentation. They do not tell the stories of the people they show, but in fact only my own story. Yet the images capture fragments of the state of mind of other people in Berlin in those years and thus record moments of life in that city.”

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© Heiko Sievers

The lead about his work is meaningful because 1980. In Berlin. is not particularly a joyful story.  Although Heiko is always revealing a beautiful tenderness in his subjects, we are gettting in the first place a depressing and drab sense of life in Berlin. Many of his pictures are breathing a melancholic sense of being at the loss. Did the photographer start to realize that it would become difficult for subventioned oustiders? Did he start to acknowledge that eventually there would be a special bill to be paid?

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© Heiko Sievers

Since he deliberately portrayed West-Berlin “in exclusively grey shades, no colour at all, and very little future either” he may already have felt that Berlin’s fate as a city with a special status was unsure. In a filthy men’s room we can read “Elend wird kommen!” (misery will come); “Atemnot” (cannot breathe)…..As if he knew that forces would come that would drain the dreamers’ oasis.

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© Heiko Sievers

But, without spoiling the storyline, 1980. In Berlin. is offering much more than gloomy predictions about the fate of the Berliner counterforces. Many sideplots are incorporated in this book. We are for example intrigued by the role played by a young woman who looks a bit like Marlene Dietrich. We see her more than once. And just before the end, we are given a clue of how the future can  look bright even for the most pessimistic defeatists. From the last image, we can learn that the future remains an open road, also for those who counted on the infamous Wall to be shielded away from the so-called real world. Maybe some of them have paid a heavy price after the Wall came down, but only a  few will have regretted their crazy rides in West-Berlin. And West-Berlin survives in this book anyway ……. Thanks a lot Mr. Sievers!

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© Heiko Sievers