Connecting Berlin’s past and present
Connecting Berlin's past and present
“Berlin in the early 80s was a completely different zeitgeist to today. But the connection between my work now, and that of the last four decades, is that I always try to show mine and my friends’ attitudes to life. We were a group of people who grew up in East Berlin that were different and unadjusted somehow. Our desire for freedom is what pushed us to create.”
Sven Marquardt’s story as a photographer begins in the 1980s in GDR-controlled East Berlin. Punk and New Wave were emerging amid a backdrop of Stasi control and surveillance. And a wide-eyed, twenty-something Sven picked up a camera to document it. “We grew up under a dictatorship, but we always had a different, more liberated, idea of living than what our parents had shown us,” he says. “The camera started out as my companion to capture my, our, way of seeing the world. It was just a coincidence that I eventually became a photographer.”
Sven’s artistic focus has always been on people. His portraits taken over the last forty years — exclusively with analogue film and nearly always in black and white — demonstrate a fascination with Berlin’s subcultures, a keen eye for fashion and a sense for the unusual in humanity. When choosing his subjects, Sven selects models who don’t necessarily conform to the classic image of beauty. “It’s more about personality, self-confidence and diversity,” he says. “I find the models for my pictures either among my friends or in the club context — and sometimes, gladly, from agencies.” Sven sees his subjects as “protagonists” — characters through which he can express feelings of drama or melancholy to the viewer. His strict use of daylight and his careful selection of location are as important to his photographs as the props, staging and striking poses of his subjects.
“While I started out with timid attempts at staged photography, my work in the last ten years has become much more conceptual,” says Sven. His 2020 exhibition STAGELESS, which was hosted in the Friedrichstadt-Palast theatre in Berlin, for example, was designed to show dancers in the offstage moments right after a performance — when the lights are down, and the glamour of the stage has been wiped off the dancers’ sculpted bodies. The exhibition took on a new significance in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, when theatres, clubs, galleries and other cultural spaces were forced to close their doors. “For STAGELESS, the location of the protagonist was crucially important,” says Sven. “I took the photos in a simple freight elevator at the Friedrichstadt-Palast that was normally used to carry stage equipment.” The atmosphere of the set — industrial, barren — was a far cry from that of the stage where the dancers usually perform, as if replicating the eeriness of an empty theatre.
‘The camera started out as my companion to capture my, our, way of seeing the world. It was just a coincidence that I eventually became a photographer.’
Sven Marquardt, 2021
While it’s possible to plan ahead for a shoot, the “final moment between photographer and model is always unpredictable,” says Sven. The seconds before he clicks the shutter down on his camera are often marked by feelings of nervousness and excitement: “I think it is a healthy form of stage-fright, which is connected to adrenaline and tension. There’s always the question of how the model and I will interact: will we get involved with each other, getting slowly closer with each shot?” he says. Sven’s use of analogue also makes the result of his photographs hard to predict — but that is part of the magic of the medium. “I find working with analogue a little bit mysterious. I’m unable to see the pictures I have taken on set, and I have to wait until I pick them up from the laboratory to see whether they’ve worked out like I imagined. But I find this sense of apprehension always thrilling.”
The ever-changing metropolis of Berlin has provided continual inspiration for Sven, who has become known over the years as a symbol of the city’s nightlife. His work as a doorman at the Ostgut club in the early 90s, and today at the world-renowned techno temple of Berghain, has been a way for Sven to stay in touch with the zeitgeist. “Ever since the days growing up in East Berlin, club culture has always symbolised autonomy for me: the idea of finding your own way, feeling free and being who you want to be. I’m in a lucky position to be working at the club door: it keeps me in touch with the new generation, who inspire me very much.”
‘Ever since the days growing up in East Berlin, club culture has always symbolised autonomy for me: the idea of finding your own way, feeling free and being who you want to be.’
Sven Marquardt, 2021
Sven’s body of work has documented major societal and cultural changes: from the fall of the Berlin Wall to the coronavirus pandemic of today. His photography — classic, elegant, dramatic — is one of the remaining bridges between Berlin’s past and present. “Berlin has changed almost entirely since 1980, but it is still Berlin — just in a different form. Now, the city is a lot more international, with a lot of people coming here to work or to live. Yes, it’s sad that some friends are gone now, that places in the city have disappeared and that the people here are different — but this happens all over the world, all the time.”
Sven, standing outside Orange Coffee on Prenzlauer Allee — a few streets away from the place where he grew up — takes a sip of his cappuccino and concludes: “I’ve travelled a lot more since the nineties, and I’ve seen how big the world is: how many countries and colours of skin there are. But there are cities in the world that don’t seem real: everything looks like a backdrop. Berlin may have changed, but the city is still authentic.”
‘Berlin may have changed, but the city is still authentic.’
Sven Marquardt, 2021