In 1978, photographer Miron Zownir arrived in West Berlin. At the age of 25, he was coming into his own while the capital of his native Germany was a mecca for artists and anarchists alike who had been drawn to the seamy, seedy underbelly of a city that seemed to be knocking on death’s door. And yet, within the chaos of poverty, new life came forth, as the culture was nourished by creative thought.
From cinemas to sex clubs, drug dens to publishing houses, nightclubs to demonstrations, Berlin was alive with the most nourish of pleasures—and through his camera, Zownir captured it all: the highs, the lows, and the glorious madness of squalor.
His photographs have been collected in Berlin Noir (Pogo Books), spanning nearly four decades, taking us up to 2016. In passionate black and white photographs that are as gritty as they are gripping, Zownir shows us Berlin as we’ve never seen it before. Here is a city filled with derelicts that haunt us with their zest for life and their taste for the edge.
When Zownir arrived in ’78, West Berlin was “a heaven for draft evaders, drop outs, dope addicts, sexual outlaws, fanatics and spies. A city of failures. Being down and out as considered an honor, glorified in the media, music and literature and even the establishment tried to be alternative and cool. But Berlin was never a hipster town. Its charm was its morbid desolation and gloom. It was like a defeated fighter with the battered look of a loser and the vitality of a lunatic.”
Berlin was a beast. It was a place filled with history that ate its citizens alive and transformed them into people who lived in a truly present tense. They embodied the Sex Pistols ethos, “No Future,” perfectly. They didn’t have to rebel; everything had been laid to waste. Into this vortex, they lived freely, on their own terms, embracing the beauty and brutality of a world devoid of social norms. When all is laid to waste, what remains but a world of broken concrete where children and adults alike can play.
Zownir left Berlin in 1980 and headed to New York. When he returned in 1995, the city was in a state of tremendous transformation. The ruins of the town he once knew were being repaired, redeveloped, and rediscovered for a new generation of aspiring deshabilles. East and West Berlin had been reunited and filled with hope, continuing to attract poor musicians and artists but also drawing Neo Nazis from the East.
As with many major cities around the world, the past decade has ushered in a new era of cultural imperialism. Wealth foreigners and transplants from other towns have arrived to gentrify and make bougie all that had been raw. The edge has blunted, with everything turning a pale shade of beige as the pure vitality of the city has slowly been slipping away.
Zownir writes, “Many of those laces I loved are gone as well as many of the things I hated. How can you be sentimental about the spirit that lived off a Cold war situation that divided a city? With the capitulation to capitalism, Berlin became as greedy and violent as you could expect. It lost its magic but it still has a hell of a lot to offer.”
Berlin Noir reveals that one does not need to be sentimental to wax nostalgic about what once was, to appreciate what they could not see being in the moment as it occurred. The photographs of the past tell a truth, a story of humanity when stripped to its barest bones. It’s a story Zownir tries to follow as it slowly disappears from the world, erased by the imperialist forces that caused it to occur in the very first place.
All photos: © Miron Zownir, courtesy of Pogo Books
Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Vogue Online, The Undefeated, Dazed Digital, Aperture Online, and Feature Shoot. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.