Johns Hopkins University Press
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  • Constructing Imperial Berlin: Photography and the Metropolis by Miriam Paeslack
Constructing Imperial Berlin: Photography and the Metropolis. By Miriam Paeslack. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. Pp. 232. Cloth $120.00. ISBN 978-1517902940.

For those of us who love the city, Berlin never fails to delight with its architectural gems and public landscapes. Berlin's many modern layers have never been entirely erased, despite deliberate destruction in times both of war and peace, and in part thanks to photographic documentation. Miriam Paeslack inherited a love of Berlin from those who lived in and thereby helped create its "urban imaginary" (154). Paeslack traces the transformations of the capital city after 1870, its continual urban renewal, demolition, and construction, by focusing on the photographers hired by imperial-era city officials to document and celebrate Berlin as a modern metropolis.

This richly illustrated book provides ample evidence of the photographic projects undertaken on behalf of the newly minted capital. Cultural critics from around the globe gave Berlin short shrift as a latecomer to modern urbanity. Compared to Paris (of course), it lacked history, grandeur, and gravitas. The ultimate epithet deplored its "American" belatedness to world-class status, which was also a backhanded way of acknowledging how quickly Berlin—like Chicago, but without the skyscrapers—built, and built upwards. But as photographers demonstrated, the camera was uniquely well-equipped to befriend a new city's image.

Photographers documented the old and the new with equal parts skill and art, serving the dual primary goals of preservation and civic boosterism. The first chapter examines diverse forms of late nineteenth-century panorama photography taken from a variety of vantage points around the center of Berlin and published in high-quality albums and widely circulated periodicals. The second chapter is devoted to the collaboration (lasting from 1902–1912) of the highly influential (and later much maligned) city architect, Ludwig Hoffmann, and the photographer Ernst Braunitsch. They published annual illustrated volumes dedicated to Berlin's "Neubauten." [End Page 171] Hoffmann has been referred to as the "Stadtbild-Baumeister" of Berlin with good reason, Paeslak argues, thanks in large part to the achievements of Braunitsch's masterful photographs (41).

In the third chapter, Paeslack demonstrates how photogrammetric images and rubble photography "take stock" not only of urban architecture but also of a city's "state of mind," referencing Georg Simmel's contemporary essay on the modern metropolis (71). The Royal Prussian Photogrammetric Institute, founded in 1885, matched a new technology with city planners' demands for surveys of the urban landscape in transition, enabling the creation of the first architectural archive of its kind. While the French Mission Héliographique in the 1850s had used calotypes to document architectural landmarks, the new technology allowed for finer-grained images (90). The photogrammetric camera (fig. 3.4) was capable of measuring angles with extraordinary precision, enabling re-creation of exact blueprints of building exteriors even after their demolition.

Photogrammetric photography also excelled at documenting the production of rubble, long before the birth of "ruin porn," for instance in documenting the destruction of the Schlossfreiheit buildings adjacent to the royal castle and the construction of the (since destroyed) Kaiser Wilhelm I memorial. Paeslack compares the aesthetics of ruin paintings and rubble photography as contemporary and related phenomena: rather than glorifying the memento mori of ancient ruins, photographers emphasized the "transitional status of rubble itself" and reflected an aesthetic that was "tactile, dynamic and materially and ideologically rooted in its urban historical moment" (109).

The "invention of tradition" in a city that supposedly lacked history is featured in chapter 4's discussion of the Märkische Museum and the exhibition "Old Berlin." The museum's publication of Picturesque Berlin (3 volumes, 1911–1914) attempted to celebrate the old as well as the beautiful. Paeslack considers the meaning of "picturesque" in the context of painting as well as photographic representation of Heimat and older, working-class districts. Photographers gravitated toward Berlin's Krögel alleyways and romanticized it in ways quite distinct from the social welfare and muckraker gaze that informed contemporary photography of urban slums in Great Britain or the United States. Paeslack concludes that "Picturesque Berlin was explicitly and unabashedly about creating images that were linked to the subjective, personal, and touristic gaze" (144). By tracking the relationship of photography with both preservation and civic boosterism, Paeslack makes a case for understanding photography as integral to the image of imperial Berlin.

As a scholar of visual culture, Paeslack pays careful attention to photographs as historical evidence. She discusses the production as well as the publication of the images, referencing them in text and providing the detailed identification captions that are standard for art historians (and less often produced by other scholars). The rare occasion when an image is reproduced but not discussed therefore stands out. [End Page 172] Why is the Leicester Square panorama offered as generic (Fig. 1.3), or Ruskin and Le Cavilier Iller's image of Venice (Fig. 2.2) typical of all nineteenth-century architectural photography? But by casting Berlin photography within the larger ambit of European aesthetics, Paeslack successfully shows that while local practices may have their own particular concerns, they remain embedded within larger discourses of image-making, preservation, and urban modernity.

Susan A. Crane
University of Arizona

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