Brian Rose. The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004. 144 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-56898-493-3.
Reviewed by Lois Weinthal (School of Architecture, University of Texas at Austin)
Published on H-German (July, 2005)
A Photographer's View of the Iron Curtain
The construction of the Berlin Wall physically divided a city, while at a larger scale, it globally represented the division of two powers, marking Eastern and Western Europe with conflicting political and economic ideals. The division of East and West after World War II was symbolically referred to as the Iron Curtain. Brian Rose uses the symbolism of the Iron Curtain as a lens upon which to document the border along Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Yugoslavia. His photographs document the changing landscape starting in 1985. The history of the Berlin Wall is often told through texts, while the photographs of Brian Rose require a different type of reading, one not based on words but grounded in a visual reading of landscape, objects, and people, often telling a story that words leave behind. As words tell us the history of a place, these photographs record changes in the German landscape and neighboring Soviet bloc countries. Rose's photographs are accompanied by brief descriptions throughout the book that offer his own accounts of his experiences while photographing the border. The link between the photographs and the diary-like paragraphs gives a poetic account as to why the images look the way they do. This book fills a gap in the selection of history books offering the history of Germany's division and the larger division between East and West. The content of the book lies in the eighty color illustrations, accompanying paragraphs and no footnotes, so readers should be prepared to analyze images.
The book opens with an introduction by Anthony Bailey that immediately draws us into the history of the division made by the Iron Curtain. His account of this time period touches upon key moments when the first marks of division took place in 1952 only to be reinforced in 1961 by the construction of the Berlin Wall. It is not until 1989 that a threshold would appear in the dividing borders paving the way for German unification. Bailey guides us through a brief history of past divisions offering a comparison of the political, social, and economic issues that cause divisions between regimes at different times in history.
Following Bailey's essay is the author's introduction. We learn how Rose's interest in this topic came about through an image of the Berlin Wall that he kept from a National Geographic as a young boy growing up in the 1950s during the Cold War era in the United States. In 1985, Rose took his first trip to Germany and began documenting the border. It is from this experience that the eighty color illustrations document the border between East and West, with emphasis on Germany and the Berlin Wall. The images are organized into chapters entitled "Curtain," "Wall," "Opening," "Ruins," "Reconstruction," and "Requiem."
The first chapter of images ("Curtain") focuses on the division of East and West Germany as seen through landscape photographs, revealing the distance and inaccessibility of entering East Germany and the Soviet Bloc. The photographs capture landscapes in all seasons, with the most stunning being the border between East and West Germany at Blankenberg from 1987 (p. 39, also shown on the cover of the book). The overall image has the quality of a black and white photograph; although in color, it is monochromatic because of the snow-covered landscape and the overcast sky. In the foreground we see a river with a stone bridge that terminates before it completes its path from one bank to the other. The photographer is standing, looking out to a steep hill rising in the background that becomes a wall. Trees break the surface of the snow-covered hill, most of which are barren of leaves in this winter landscape. Each of Rose's photographs has a similar description. The landscape makes for a well thought-out compositional photograph, but there is always some clue of division. In this photograph, we find the clues of division as seen in a posted sign marking the official border (Landesgrenze) and a watchtower. Accompanying this photograph is a brief description by the author of the types of watchtowers that he finds on his journey along the border.
The following chapter ("Wall") focuses on the Berlin Wall, thereby moving from the rural landscape into the Berlin cityscape, and leading into the next chapter ("Opening"). The first photograph shown is taken with a delayed exposure that captures people climbing through a hole made in the Berlin Wall. As Rose photographs the movement of people, he also photographs other people taking photographs, as everyone is trying to capture the events of what would lead to unification. One photograph on Zimmerstrae (p. 91) focuses on two people chipping away at the Berlin Wall where graffiti is slowly being erased; just above the head of one of the wall chippers is a picture of Mikhail Gorbachev taped to the Wall. Via these photographs, Rose proves history can be told through images. This chapter leads into the next ("Ruins"), in which the deconstruction and disappearance of the Berlin Wall leaves empty strips of land. These muddy areas mark the sites where new construction would take place--a new Potsdamer Platz and the Holocaust Memorial by the architect Peter Eisenman.
The final chapter ("Requiem") focuses on a border memorial in the East German town Htensleben. The photographs capture icons associated with the border between East and West, such as the wall, the watchtower, and the death strip. These icons sit in a landscape bridging the horizon of land and sky, each in its clich of green and blue, as if the sky has lifted its overcast clouds now that Germany has been unified. It is in this chapter that the man-made icons associated with the division of East and West stand out as reminders of the past in a freshly grown landscape of grass. These final pages make one return to the beginning of the book to search for these icons when they were in use and seen from across the border.
The recent photographs from 2004 document Berlin but also begin to act as a guide of places to visit. It is images like these that the author asks the reader to remember, thus recognizing Berlin over a range of times. A map provided in the beginning of the book falls short, however, of guiding someone to the locations that the author visited and photographed. The map remains too distant and non-specific in comparison with the specificity of the photographs in the book and appears to have more to do with showing a nice graphic rather than critically linking the photographs to their specific sites.
Overall, this book offers an alternative telling of the division of East and West made through the symbolism of the Iron Curtain. The photographs go beyond those of photojournalists to find a way to link composition, imagery, and history all together.
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Lois Weinthal. Review of Rose, Brian, The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain.
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