A berlin break
As 2019 began the (wet, grey, boring) weather in southern Finland was providing me with no photography inspiration whatsoever... so I decided to head to Berlin for a couple of days to get started with the year's photography.
It seems that I took the wet, grey, boring weather with me on my journey so I decided to mainly shoot interiors and to indulge my interest in photographing staircases which got a hold of me in 2018 (in Prague, Budapest, Riga, Vienna, etc).
After checking into my hotel, near to Hauptbahnhof I went for a walk, thinking to visit a few churches (seeking photographs rather than absolution). One drawback of impulsive "where should I go tomorrow?" travel is that the location research time is somewhat squeezed... the first two churches I visited were closed for renovations. Third time lucky - the Neue Kirche was not covered in scaffolding and the doors were open.
The church building now hosts a museum dedicated to the history of the Bundestag. I was more interested in the building than in the exhibits it housed, the tall central tower contains a large open space at the centre for its whole height with staircases snaking around the outside.
The exhibition rooms and corridors also had some interesting nooks and crannies.
After a good night's sleep it was time to hunt for some staircases. I decided to go straight for the two which I was most interested in, one which was in the film museum and another in an office building. I eventually found the film museum staircase, but was unable to shoot there because it was under repair... that was a disappointment... but not to worry, I continued to the office building. At the office building I was informed by the guard that the owners had decreed that the staircase was copyrighted and nobody was allowed to photograph it. Well... that was also annoying. In both cases I had tracked down the location and got to within 3 metres of the place I would need to stand to take the picture... but I couldn't get a picture.
I decided on a change of scene to get over the staircase disappointments and headed for the Olympic stadium, site of Jesse Owens famous victories in 1936 and in more recent times the home stadium for Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin.
It was most interesting to be almost completely alone in a place where you would usually attend at the same times as tens of thousands of others.
I had a certain picture in mind, the football pitch as a green oasis in the middle of the dark empty stadium... but soon it became clear I would not be getting such a shot, instead of an oasis of green it was more like a sandy desert... with some desert tractors... they were relaying the pitch.
Visitors are allowed quite a good level of access to the stadium, you cannot get to every part of it, but you can get to different areas in different parts of the stadium, so you can choose to be down close to pitch level or high up in the stands and you can walk all around the outside of the stadium.
A large circular structure with many repeating elements offers good possibilities to use lines and curves in your photographs.
It was an enjoyable visit to the stadium, despite the pitch repairs, so I thought that maybe my luck was turning after the churches being closed for renovations and the staircases being forbidden. I headed back to continue the staircase hunt, starting at a hotel where I had stayed for a weekend in 2015, oblivious to the beauty of the staircase I went up and down many times.
From there I went to a nearby office building where another elaborate creation awaited.
The afternoon staircases just about made up for the morning disappointments and I ended the day feeling more positive.
The next morning I set off on foot once again. Although Berlin has an underground/metro/subway/whatever-you-want-to-call-it I found it to be less useful for getting around than almost any other major city I had been to. There seemed to be enough lines and enough stations, but the amount of crossover points where you could easily get from one line to another seemed to be too low. Any time I needed to get somewhere I would investigate how to go by underground.... and the end result always seemed to be that it would be better to walk. A 55 minute walk usually seemed preferable to a a 45 minute walk-underground-bus-underground-walk fuss. I walked about 100,000 steps in 3.5 days on this trip.
My first destination was the Hackesher Market area, full of small shops, dark alleys and interesting architecture.
I was searching for a staircase with golden details which I knew was around here somewhere... but then I wondered up an unpromising looking alley and chanced upon something I liked even better.
My search continued through some more courtyards...
... before I finally found the staircase I was looking for in the first place. This was a very interesting area to wonder around.
After a morning of market capitalism it was time for spiritual cleansing, so I headed for Berlin Cathedral. At this location I was not chasing staircases, but I found them anyway... the path which visitors are directed to follow through the building includes a descent into the crypt as well as a climb to an open walkway around the edge of the domed roof.
The grand staircase leading from ground level up to the first level balconies was quite impressive.
Closer to the roof the stairways got a bit less elaborate but remained interesting.
I then made my way to an up-market shopping mall, a little more fancy than the Hackescher market, but before I could even turn my camera on I was intercepted by a security guard and received a long speech in German... "blah, blah, blah, blah, verboten, blah, blah blah". This was not the first time during the trip for a similar speech. As far as I had understood beforehand from googling about the law related to photography in Germany it is illegal to photograph someone without their permission if the person is clearly recognisable AND the person is the main subject of the picture... which sounds fair enough and is not an issue for me as I go to great lengths to try and make sure there are no humans cluttering up my frame. I was surprised how this translated into "no photos at all" in many parts of Berlin and also how actively it was being enforced.
I sought refuge in the foyer of a nearby hotel and restored my energy with a cappuccino.
My journey continued as I walked towards the Shell Haus, an office building designed by professor Emil Fahrenkamp and built in-between the wars. It is a "classical modernist architectural masterpiece" according to wikipedia - I am not qualified to comment on that, but to me the waved facade of the building rates as "cool", which is one of my highest ratings.
My route from Shell Haus back to the hotel took me through the Tiergarten, a large park area in the middle of Berlin. During the walk I saw many different birds, the most common being the hundreds of mallards inhabiting the park's waterways. From the corner of my eye I saw a flash of something more colourful and was happy to discover that one of the hundreds of ducks was not a mallard, it was something much more fancy - a mandarin duck.
I have not seen or photographed one of these before so this was a real bonus - the 194th (non-captive) bird species I have photographed.
One interesting thing about taking photographs in a city is the wide range of colours and shapes that you might see on a typical day, including many combinations that you will not find in nature. Sometimes this leads to unexpected photo opportunities, if you are just lucky enough to spot the potential.
On my final morning in Berlin I had a simple mission, seek out two more staircases that had come up in my research. I set off on foot once again, in the rain once again. As I approached my first destination I came upon another interesting building - housing the Hotel Motel One Berlin Upper West (or HMOBUW as the cool kids are calling it). It is often not very easy to find a good angle to shoot very tall buildings from street level.
The first staircase I searched for seems to have been a ghost... the building I was looking for could not be found at the address that google had for the building I was looking for... so that was that. It's a bit of a challenge to hunt down a building that has gone missing, especially when it is hiding somewhere amongst tens of thousands of other buildings.
I moved on and turned my attention to the last staircase on my list, in yet another office building. As I got near the entrance I saw that once again there was a guard between me and the staircase. I went and asked permission as politely as I could... expecting another rejection... but on this occasion the guard was perfectly happy for me to get on with it, a happy and surprising turn of events!
So.... that was it... I started heading back to the hotel to check out and head for the airport... but then I saw a staircase through the rapidly closing door of yet another office building. I stuck my foot in the door and investigated further... a bonus staircase was waiting for me, making amends for the one in the missing building.
This trip to Berlin reminded me of everything that I love and hate about shooting in large cities. A city provides such a target rich environment that it is possible to cover many locations in a single day, giving opportunities for a huge variety of subjects and styles. The artificial environment provides great possibilities for vibrant colours, strong lines and curves, repetition of elements, reflections and symmetry... all of which can be powerful elements in a photograph. A city is also swarming with people, making noise, getting in the way and cluttering up your frame. A city is bathed in harsh artificial lights, of different colours, creating many scenes with too high dynamic range and an uncoordinated mess of lighting. A city also has rules, some of which are not helpful.
Overall I really enjoyed this trip and was also extremely happy to leave... my next posts will be from somewhat more remote and unpopulated areas as I spend a few weeks in Scotland.
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Until next time,
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