With my second assignment I am continuing to examine the legacy of Munich’s past and how the city is looking to the future. I have shifted location from the large expanse of the Olympiagelande into the tight confines of the city streets and in particular to a recently rebuilt area. Sankt-Jakobs-Platz. Sankt-Jacobs-Platz is a controversial space within the city centre, one of the few areas that has been rebuilt in an acutely modern style, versus the more traditional reconstruction adopted after the war. Significant objections were voiced from an architectural and aesthetic standpoint; however, the real venom came from the far right who brought their hatred to bear upon the new occupants of the square. Sankt-Jakobs-Platz is the new centre for Munich’s Jewish community, comprising the Ohel Jakob synagogue, Jewish Museum, and a community centre.
In recent years immigration from the east has swelled Munich’s Jewish population to upwards of 9,000. Lacking any permanent place of worship a decision was made in the late 90’s that Munich would once again house a permanent place of worship for the Jewish community. On the 9th November 2006, the 68th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, the synagogue was opened a few blocks from where the last Ohel Jakob synagogue was destroyed in 1938. The Jewish Museum and Community Centre followed on the 22nd March 2007, the anniversary of the opening of Dachau, Nazi Germany’s first concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich. The symbolism of the dates is important to the story of the rebirth of Judaism in Munich; respect is paid to the past, whilst the new buildings look to the future.
In recent years Munich has started to address the Nazi history of the city. Immediately after the war people wanted to move on and forget; there was very little to indicate that this was once the home of the NSDAP. Munich has often been accused of avoiding the subject, the cities self-view alternating between the cozy “Gemütlichkeit” of the beer kellers and the technological prowess of their industrial base. Recently a new generation of Müncheners are coming to terms with the past, wanting to know and to ask questions. Whilst it is unlikely the city will ever see blue plaques on the walls of Hitler’s old apartment or the former HQ of the party, a new exhibition has opened that examines Munich’s involvement in the birth of the movement. Symbolically this museum is housed on Sankt-Jakobs-Platz, directly opposite the Jewish centre, and within the Munich City Museum.
Sankt-Jacobs-Platz is now an integral part of the city, housing several very popular cafés, as well as the two museums and Jewish centre. It is located between the cities main market, the Viktualienmarkt and popular shopping streets, so there is a steady stream of people passing through. The area is pedestrianized and a variety of seating areas, fountains, and a children’s playground fill the space. The pedestrianization, whilst welcome, is sadly also a security feature. In 2003 a Neo-Nazi plot was discovered together with partly completed car bomb, 30Kg of explosives, and numerous weapons. The target; the half-finished synagogue. Munich is stepping away from the past, openly accepting its history; however, it is still stalked by the spectre of far right hatred and violence. A permanent police presence, close circuit surveillance, the armouring of doors and windows, and the fact that every entrance to the Platz is blocked by retractable bollards, point to the fact that there is still much work to be done to eradicate racism and hatred in the new Germany.
Once again I have selected a difficult subject, both from a narrative and a technical perspective. It was not an easy decision, I was aware of a danger being that I could overplay the theme of legacy and reconciliation. However, as an Englishman living in Munich it is hard to escape from the sense of what this place once was and what it now is. As with assignment 1, I want to reflect upon the past, but keep my attention firmly on the present and the future. Furthermore I needed to move into a completely urban environment and set myself the challenge of creating a meaningful photographic study of a confined space.
I had already worked in and around this area, so knew it quite well, both from a geographic sense, but also understood some of the challenges of working there. First and foremost, I had to avoid unwanted intrusion. Being Jewish in Munich is still not easy; becoming a curiosity for visiting photographers is not going to be welcomed. I was approached several times by security or the police to ask (politely) what I was doing and why. At times this was a little disturbing, I was even followed by men carrying walkie-talkies, however, the space is public ground; I had the right to be there and take photographs, but respectfully. This is not a documentary of the Jewish community, rather the examination of a space created for the Jewish community.
In all but two of the photographs people are present, sometimes dominantly, but usually incidentally, adding scale and movement to the images. I was very aware when creating and selecting the photographs that this was not an architectural study, rather an attempt to portray all aspects of Sankt-Jakobs-Platz. The content of the photographs is without doubt strongly influenced by the architecture, and indeed the buildings are the Landscape of this assignment, however, I have endeavoured to create a study that is more than a bunch of photos of interesting buildings.
I found the development of a coherent narrative more difficult than in previous assignments, a single acre offers less variety of location and subject; subsequently less freedom of expression. The narrative is relatively simple: I start with the evils of the past, move onto the brightness of the present, but finish with a reminder of the threat that still persists. I contrast old with new and show how people interrelate with buildings in the space. I have sequenced the photographs with this narrative in mind, however, the photographs are selected to provide a collective description of the space. Normally I add titles to my photographs, this time I could not do so, each photograph is a part of a whole.
The brief asked for the study of a single acre, I have interpreted this a little loosely, more a hectare than an acre, after all we are metric in Munich. In the satellite image below, I have marked an acre centred on the synagogue, together with the location and angle of each photograph in the set. Working within a small area was frustrating and liberating at the same time. Generating enough variation in imagery to sustain interest was not easy, on the other hand I was able to develop a strong familiarity that converted into knowledge of what might or might not work.
The urban environment brought a number of new challenges. The first is light; buildings cast very distinct and dark shadows, the light might only be good in a specific location for a very short time each day. I quickly figured out where the Sun would be and when, sometimes using shade to add structure, other times eliminating it. The second challenge is angle of view; narrow streets preclude long focal lengths, open areas require them to reduce the vast areas of negative space. The third and possibly most challenging problem is that of the straight line. “Natural” landscapes often formed by curves or irregular broken shapes; trees, mountain sides, or rivers. We do not notice a little barrel or pincushion distortion in country scenes and perspective is rarely an issue. In the city any deviation from a straight line is immediately apparent. Although I have access to perspective control lenses and did use them, they only work for a certain style of shot; throughout shooting and processing I was very vigilant to keep walls straight and windows square.
I shot the assignment over a period of 6 weeks, visiting the location on 10 separate occasions. Whilst shooting I did not have a specific shot list in mind nor a pre-determined narrative, my goal was simply to capture as much variety as possible and then reflect on how I would pull a set together. I varied the time of day, the weather and used a range of focal lengths. It was not until very close to completing the shooting that I was sure that I could even present this as an assignment. I was comfortable that I was getting some good shots; I just could not work out what it was that I was trying to say – this was by far the hardest part of the assignment. In retrospect this should have been easier, but at the time was a major puzzle to solve.
Beyond the overall concept a key decision to make was over how I would present the photographs, colour versus B&W and framing. For the latter I have adopted a free approach cropping each image to the dimension suggested by the content not the output medium. This means there are many different aspect ratios within the set. The biggest decision to make, though, was concerning the colour treatment. I opted for Black and White for 3 distinct reasons. First of all it suits the subject, the strong contrast and definition of B&W works well with urban architecture. Secondly the city space was already largely monochromatic, grey walls, pavements, and street furniture dominated most scenes. There was some colour, but predominantly in the sky and some of the terracotta roofing tiles. Finally this is a learning experience, not an end in itself. To develop as a photographer I need to explore different forms and styles.
In moving to B&W I also had to consider the treatment I would use in the conversion process. I have opted for fairly high contrast coupled with a medium to strong degree of sharpening. I have adjusted the colour conversion to generate greater contrast. In particular I have worked with the Orange and Yellow to add texture to the walls of the synagogue. All conversions were done in Lightroom and output as 16 bit Tiffs for printing. I have printed each photograph on A4 Archival Matte Paper. This was also a new experience; the contrast is remarkable, the Matte paper really capturing the density of Blacks in the photos.
- It is better to have a narrative in mind before starting a project, however, sometimes that simply is not possible. I knew from the start that this would be about Judaism, but to what degree and how.
- Time of day and weather are an even greater challenge working in a city, as the buildings are frequently only lit optimally for an hour or less.
- For this assignment I had to develop a mixture of camera handling skills, from working with a tripod to quick fire street style shots that avoided drawing attention to me.
- Black and White is a truly expressive medium, but requires a great deal of care when doing conversion and then selection of paper for printing.
LS-A2-1: The recent opening of an exhibit chronicling the rise of the Nazi party in Munich is a welcome step along the road towards an understanding of the cities past. However, it is not an easy place to visit, seeing posters such as the one portrayed here in full size and set alongside other remnants of hatred is disturbing. It provides a striking contrast to the modern and liberal city that is today’s Munich.
This was a technically difficult shot, no flash and very little light, plus a need to juxtapose the poster against the uniform behind it. I have very deliberately processed this to almost black, permitting just a hint of the Swastika to emerge from the shadow. This is the darkness from which I want the light of the following photographs to emerge. This is an image that many modern Germans would shudder to see.
LS-A2-2: The Münchener Stadtmuseum houses the Nazi collection, as well as offering a broad overview of 800 years of Munich’s history. It forms the Eastern side of Sankt-Jakobs-Platz, the 15th century year old building yielding a counterpoint to the modernity of the Jewish centre.
I have tried to portray the essence of this building, with its confusion of overlapping roofs and curved doorways; then capture a moment as two people move past. Throughout this series of photographs a constant presence will be formed by bicycles chained to every available object offering security.
LS-A2-3: From the first floor of the Stadtmuseum the view to the West reveals a very different architecture to the jumbled structure of the museum. There is something very German about the orderliness of the seating area to the right and the stark frontage of the Jewish Community centre. To the far right is a 200 year old house that would once have been the defining look and the source of much complaint when the rest of the square was not redeveloped in this style.
This was not an ideal time to take this photograph, I would have preferred not to have the shadow, however, it is also possible that in direct sun the wall facing would have been far too bright. On the other hand the low Autumn sun casts some interesting shadows through the middle ground of the photograph.
LS-A2-4: A number of things hint at on-going challenges for the Jewish population of Munich, here thickly armoured glass in the walls of the community centre provides a juxtaposition of old with new.
This is one of a small number of shots that tightly frame an element of the Platz rather than provide a broad look at the space. I have framed the shot so that I am not reflected in the windows, but such that the Stadtmuseum is strongly present. This required a lot of work to ensure that lines were straight and that symmetry was preserved.
LS-A2-5: The Jewish museum and synagogue sit in the centre of the Platz, walkways between the buildings offer contrasting views of the ultra-modern against the medieval.
This shot illustrates how the buildings relate to each other within the space and at the same time hint at the foot traffic that is ever present. The Jewish museum is the building to the right of frame. Ideally the lamppost in the centre could have been offset to the left of the eyes, however, that brought other compromises in such a tight space.
LS-A2-6: Following a brief rain shower, the sun came out and illuminated the Platz; patterns of light reflected in the cobbles reinforce the ordered architecture of the adjacent building.
I spent one day shooting in the rain, hoping for something a little downbeat, however, the rain simply took the light away and people headed for cover. When the sun came out, it all reversed, suddenly there was light everywhere. I was particularly drawn to the reflections of the starkness of the community centre. I was lucky with the positioning of the people in the frame, two tourists look at a leaflet explaining the Platz, two men simply look around. I have kept the camera down to avoid blowing out the sky, but also to emphasize the structure of the overlapping buildings.
LS-A2-7: As people walk through the canyons between the buildings, they are under constant surveillance, any suspicion of malice will draw an immediate response.
With this image I wanted to convey two distinct elements of the Platz, firstly the solidity and size of the buildings using people as a measure. Secondly those same people are being observed by security cameras surmounting the roof behind them. This is one of three shots in the set that contain reminders of the on-going threat to the Jewish community.
LS-A2-8: The Ohel Jakob synagogue has several distinct architectural features that convey strong religious symbolism. The lower and outer wall of the synagogue is dressed with roughly cut stone designed to reflect the wailing wall in Jeruselam.
In this and the next photo I have gone in much closer trying to capture people simply relaxing on a sunny day. The subject of the photo is the wall in the background with the man leaning against it to offer some scale. I had tried a variety of shots of the wall, but they all simply said, “Hey look, a rough wall”. Here I am able to portray a key part of the synagogue, but also the fact that this is a place to relax and take it easy.
LS-A2-9: A key feature of the Jewish Museum is an excellent café fronted by a well-designed children’s playground, ensuring that this is a space enjoyed by all generations, somewhere safe to bring the family.
Not the easiest of subjects to photograph these days, children, but a key element of the story that is the new Jewish centre in Munich. This is not a sombre memorial, it is a living environment filled with fun and laughter. Photographers are quite common in this area and so no one really noticed that I took the occasional shot of the play area, however, I used a longer focal length and was quite circumspect about what I was doing.
LS-A2-10: The children’s playground is directly adjacent to the bulk of the synagogue, once again reflecting that this is a centre for the community, not simply a place of worship.
This was good fortune, I had my camera on a tripod exploring the shape and form of the synagogue and the structures surrounding it. The little boy ran over to me wondering what I was up to, I hit the shutter. His earnest look and the fact that something is attracting his attention from outside the frame adds interest into what could otherwise have been a very static composition.
LS-A2-11: As night falls the synagogue is subtly lit to reveal its structure. The lower section represents the wailing wall, the glass cube on top, a tent, symbolizing Moses’ 40-years in the wilderness, whilst the doors feature Hebrew letters depicting the 10 commandments.
Dusk allowed me to image the synagogue more completely as artificial light supplemented the remaining natural light lifting the shadows. The two figures add scale and fortunately stayed where they were for the 10s exposure. This is the first photograph that properly reveals the synagogue that dominates the Platz.
LS-A2-12: Although the Jewish community in Munich has a new home, it is still not secure from threat. Every entrance point to the Platz is guarded by retractable bollards designed to prevent the use of car bombs.
I finish the set with a reminder that all is still not well, these bollards are a symbol of the on-going struggle of the Jewish community for acceptance and peace. When I started this investigation I thought this protection was from Israel’s usual enemies, it was only when reading more extensively that I came to realize that this was put in place to defend against German neo-Nazis. We have come a long way since the time represented by my first photograph, but still not far enough.