Arwed Messmer (ed.) Anonymous Heart Berlin. With texts by Annett Gröschner and Florian Ebner

184 pp., 78 col. and b&w photos
Hardcover with fold-out pages, 24 x 29.5cm
39 EUR, 63 CHF

ISBN 978-3-941185-66-1

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The anonymous heart of Berlin in the central district of Mitte takes in the area that is regarded as the cradle of the German capital. The earliest documentary reference to the settlement of Cölln, which was later subsumed by the adjacent settlement of Berlin, dates back to 1237. It includes Schlossplatz where there are controversial plans to rebuild the Royal Palace on the former site of the demolished East German Palace of the Republic. Second World War bombing raids and the ravages of post-war urban planning have left this neighbourhood practically devoid of life save for the heavy streams of outbound traffic, which head off in all directions.

Arwed Messmer has visited this area, which also includes the former settlement of Friedrichswerder, countless times since 1995 and recorded the changes photographically in multi-part panoramic sequences and individual photographs. For him, this is a magical place. Messmer has documented the demolition of the East German foreign ministry, the transformation of the Neue Reichsbank building, which once housed the Central Committee of the East German communist party and is now home to the German Foreign Ministry, the metamorphosis of the Palace of the Republic, the communist era developments on Breite Straße, Sperlingsgasse and along Friedrichsgracht, the new construction on Friedrichswerder and the archaeological excavations on Petriplatz.

In his search for historical images of the locality in the archives of East Berlin’s former City Planning Office, Arwed Messmer was, particularly, struck by the work of a photographer who was still unknown at that point. Later, he was identified as the surveyor and topographer Fritz Tiedemann, who, between the years of 1948 and 1952, kept returning to this place of ruin and resurrection, just like Messmer himself. Messmer’s engagement with Fritz Tiedemann’s images led to the exhibition As Far As No Eye Can See. The panorama photos of Berlin from 1949 to 1952 drew a big crowd to the Berlinische Galerie in 2008.

The writer Annett Gröschner accompanies Messmer’s journey around the centre of Berlin with her essay about the past and present of Berlin’s anonymous heart. Curator and photo historian Florian Ebner explores the artistic qualities of Arwed Messmer’s work in the context of urban photography in Berlin, analysing his photographic viewpoint and aesthetic, as well as his specific archaeological approach both in terms of the photographer’s own work and his engagement with the work of others.


Annett Gröschner
"Where Every Road Leads Out of the City. Walks in the Anonymous Heart of Berlin"

(...) Breite Straße is as wide as it is long. Up until the beginning of the eighteenth century it was called Große Straße (Great Street), and was the royal avenue leading to the residence – despite it still being used to drive cattle to pasture each day. Archaeologically, the street’s existence can be traced back to the end of the twelfth century, years before the first documentary reference to the town of Cölln.
Up until the end of the nineteenth century the street, as seen from the Royal Palace, slewed to the left across Cölln fish market in the direction of Mühlendamm. Today it leads in a straight line to the huge junction with Gertraudenstraße. It is hard to imagine that Breite Straße was once livelier and more bustling than Kudamm. Today there is nothing here to inspire a walk or a stroll. To the left is the Marstall in all its Wilhelminian solidity, right next to the Ribbeckhaus, Berlin’s sole remaining late Renaissance building. It was built in 1624 for the Privy Counsellor von Ribbeck from two older buildings, to which a uniform façade was added. Directly adjacent is the entrance building to the City Library, built in the mid 1960s, with 117 versions of the letter A on its portal. The left-hand end of the street is rounded off by the German Trade and Industry Building, a pars pro toto exemplification of the capital city’s turn-of-the-millennium bombast.
On the right-hand side everything is dead. Between here and the Scharrenstraße, there is nothing on the street, which is only interrupted by the Neumannsgasse, apart from the pediment of the State Council building, an adjoining chancellery wing and the faceless building of the former Construction Ministry. There is nothing worth pausing for, unless you are waiting for a bus to take you away from here.
“Whoever crossed over from Berlin felt as if they had been transported to a different city. Noble gentlemen with gold and silver braid on their jackets approached on beautiful horses. Women with their hair piled high and wearing colourful ribbon headdresses rode past in magnificent coaches. Virtually the only language spoken was French”, wrote Claus Backs in his 1961 novel Drei Fräulein an der Jungfernbrücke (Three Women on Jungfern Bridge), set at the end of the seventeenth century. This was a period when the Huguenots were arriving as refugees in Berlin and society life was being rapidly influenced by new fashions. > more

Florian Ebner
"The Archaeologist Among Urban Landscape Photographers"

(....) Arwed Messmer’s carefully composed visual construct made from his own and archive photographs amounts to a taking stock of an area that was once the historic centre of Berlin. To achieve this, he combines images from the immediate post-war period and the subsequent phase of reconstruction in what had just become the capital of East Germany with images from the last fifteen years that document the disappearance of communist-era buildings declared undesirable by the city’s new rulers. It is precisely the juxtaposition and cross-fading of these two periods of time that produce a sharply delineated picture: the ongoing destruction of the past, whether it be as a consequence of war or of an ideological rejection of what has gone before, leads to the facelessness of the present, to the anonymous heart of the German metropolis.

(...) On the other hand, though, Arwed Messmer has continued developing his own artistic approach for depicting the present out of an understanding of the historical past. This approach proceeds dialectically. The choice of landmarks and coordinates, around which his investigations revolve, is now determined to a decisive degree by images of the past. At the same time, the underlying visual mode of this working method adopted by Messmer remains the photographic perception of the present, which he records in the style of the critical topographic urban and landscape photography of the 1980s and 1990s – the tradition out of which his work has evolved. To a certain extent, Messmer’s images stake out the terrain upon which the historical photographs serve as flashbacks to selected moments in time directing our attention to the latent history of these places. In this book, the many huge piles of soil behind which the city looks as though it might be about to vanish evoke the documentary tradition of someone like Lewis Baltz, yet at the same time, such subjects fit neatly with the archaeological aspect of his work involving the “excavation” of historical images. Messmer’s combinational mode of dealing with this visual material, however, does not employ the sometimes rather mechanical method enthusiastically pursued by various other photographers and institutions, in which every old photograph is invariably accompanied by an up-to-date view of the same place. Messmer’s freedom to turn to historical images only when it seems appropriate allows him more room to introduce and play with subtle shadings and nuances. Thus, in addition to Tiedemann’s expansive, vacant prospects of the new East Berlin that correspond so well with the temporary emptiness of today, he also makes use of the same photographer’s images of Old Berlin – not without reason do these remind the viewer of Eugène Atget’s photographs of Paris – in order to demonstrate even more clearly that the destruction of the past has led to the anonymity of the present.


Arwed Messmer (born 1964 in Schopfheim) studied photography at the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences. In the early 1990s he produced a first series of panoramic photographs of East German landscapes, and since then has focused his artistic work on the topography of today’s cities. He has closely observed the changing face of Berlin, where he has lived since 1992. His documentary approach aims to record visible architectural change, but also to capture the historical dimension of specific places, a dimension that works like a filter into our perception of contemporary reality. This interest in the relationship between history and the present is in evidence in the multi-part work Potsdamer Platz Anno Zero (1994/95), and the series Stadt/City (1994–1998).
When researching historical photographs for this book in the Berlinische Galerie in 2006, Arwed Messmer came across photos by Fritz Tiedemann, former East Berlin city planning office photographer. Tiedemann’s pictures make up the majority of the historical photos included in Anonymous Heart – Berlin, and they have been edited and reworked in varying degrees for this book.
During the European Month of Photography in November 2008 Arwed Messmer and the Berlinische Galerie presented large-format digital reconstructions and interpreted panoramic cityscapes from the early 1950s, all from Fritz Tiedemann‘s rich legacy. This Tiedemann/Messmer exhibition As Far As No Eye Can See was accompanied by a catalogue published by Dumont Verlag, Cologne.

Annett Gröschner (born 1964 in Magdeburg), writer and journalist, has lived in Berlin since 1983. For many years, she has taken a keen and diverse interest in the city of Berlin in her work. Recently she published a collection of Berlin stories, Parzelle Paradies. Berliner Geschichten (Hamburg 2008). She has worked with Arwed Messmer on joint projects since 1992, including the books Hier beginnt die Zukunft, hier steigen wir aus. Unterwegs in der Berliner Verkehrsgesellschaft (Berlin 2002), Kontrakt 903. Erinnerung an eine strahlende Zukunft (Berlin 2003) and Verlorene Wege (Nürnberg 2009). For the catalogue of the Tiedemann/ Messmer exhibition As Far As No Eye Can See in the Berlinische Galerie in 2008 she wrote an essay Heute Prima rote Rüben. Die Fruchtstraße am 27. März 1952.


Florian Ebner (born 1970 in Regensburg) studied photography at the École Nationale Supérieure de la Photographie in Arles, as well as art history and history at the Ruhr University Bochum. He taught at the Academy of Visual Arts Leipzig from 2000 to 2006. Subsequently, he worked as an assistant curator on the exhibition project Street&Studio at Museum Folkwang in Essen. From April 2008 to January 2009, he was the acting head of the photographic department of the Berlinische Galerie where he co-curated the exhibition As Far As No Eye Can See together with Arwed Messmer and Ursula Müller. He was been working at the Museum für Photographie Braunschweig since February 2009. He has written numerous publications about modern and contemporary photography.