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  • Constructing Imperial Berlin: Photography and the Metropolis by Miriam Paeslack
  • Justin Court
Constructing Imperial Berlin: Photography and the Metropolis. By Miriam Paeslack. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2019. 191 pages + 105 b/w images. $30.00.

Examinations of Berlin's city-scape and the many changes it has undergone since its comparatively late consecration as world capital are by now legion. The present volume stands out from the crowd by extending its focus beyond more well-trodden periods of consideration in Berlin's history, such as the Weimar Republic or the Cold War division between East and West, to show how many of the mental images of the city that persist even today—principally its "fate of eternally becoming and never being" (151)—are rooted in the earlier period of imperial Germany, 1871–1918. By working through rich and heretofore undertreated archives of photographic works commissioned and collected by Berlin institutions around the turn of the century, Miriam Paeslack presents an appealing account of the numerous and sometimes conflicting forces that sought to define Berlin's importance for the new German empire and its larger place in the world through photography.

Four main chapters present the issues at play in a modern metropolis struggling with identity formation. Chapter One, "Crafting the Metropolis," examines how the "grand-style" aesthetics of photo panoramas published in popular illustrated journals sought to foster a unified image of Berlin, harness the dynamism of a city caught in rapid transformation, and instill cultural appreciation in a city that lacked the sheer weight of history and the structures indicative of such that other major European capitals enjoyed (Paris serves frequently as a productive comparison). Paeslack's reconstruction of a series of panoramas from the publication Berliner Leben—a high point in what is already a richly illustrated volume—takes the reader on an engaging virtual journey through Berlin. The author adeptly shows how the panoramas sought to orient viewers to a unified mental image of a city that was otherwise incomprehensible.

Chapter Two, "Framing Progress," outlines the similarly affirmative efforts of architectural photography to present new construction in Berlin as critical to the city's [End Page 165] worthy designation of imperial capital. Here Paeslack's take on the collaboration between architect Ludwig Hoffmann and the photographer Ernst von Brauchitsch offers valuable insight; she goes beyond Berlin's urban imagery and delves into the working relationship between architects and photographers at the time the latter group started to become necessary for the former group's practice.

The connection is also very much a focal point in Chapter Three, "Tracing Transformation," which details the tension between historical preservation and demolition. Under special consideration is photogrammetry, a technique of visual measurement employed by architects to oversee the proper execution of building plans. The photographic process was used in one case to document the leveling of the "Schloßfreiheit" complex in Berlin's center and the construction of the equestrian monument to Wilhelm I that assumed its place. The razing of a historical building to build a historicist monument compressed into one site Berlin's inner conflict in breaking with the old and asserting a new identity, modern and imperial. Among other examples throughout the book that lose the thread of Berlin as specifically the imperial capital and not merely a modern metropolis in the imperial era, the Wilhelm I monument—alongside the work of official city architect Hoffman detailed in Chapter Two—stands out clearly as one of the strongest examples of Berlin, specifically as an administrative unit, struggling to define itself. The contrast becomes clearer as Chapter Three continues in its second half with a consideration of rubble photographs that, although very popular around the turn of the century in Berlin and certainly typifying the "psychosocial challenges" (109) of a city in transformation, are more the products of independent practitioners and diverse intentions, including spectacle and entertainment. The consideration of rubble photography—as well as the popular illustrated "lifestyle" weeklies detailed in Chapter One—seems to run afoul of the guiding claim made in the first sentence of the book: "The image of imperial Berlin is closely linked to the culture of the Prussian state that...


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