Die zweite Heimat

Die zweite Heimat

The light. The space. The silence. For a long time I have thought about why Peter Bialobrzeski’s photos immediately seemed familiar to me the first time I saw them. The asphalt gray. The brick red. The hedge green. Then it came to me: the feeling that arose in me when I saw these pictures was like the one I always had when I was a child and went to visit my grandparents. We got into the car, left the city, and from the back seat I saw all of the German streets and front yards passing by—garage doors, streetlights, gas stations; then an hour on the autobahn, then again gas stations, streetlights, and garage doors. Finally, a familiar house in an unfamiliar town, my grandparents chatting with my parents over coffee and cake. I, myself—somewhat bored, but happy at the same time to have vanished from the others’ radar—looking out of the window for hours until I had memorized every flagstone on the terrace, every rhododendron in the garden, and every line in between the bricks of the wall of the house opposite. If the words “strangely familiar” apply to anything, then it would be to the view out of my grandparents’ living room window. There, outside, I saw something that I could barely relate to. And yet, it was Heimat. . Heimat? What is that? And where? People argue about this in Germany, sometimes in ways that expand horizons and sometimes in an ugly manner. Particularly in the age of globalization, the word helps some to discover themselves, while it helps others to exclude others. The concept of Heimat is used to make policy; it boosts circulation, earns money, and usually elevates or denigrates something or someone. Nearly every time there is a controversy over the notion of Heimat, 1 The German word “Heimat” is difficult to adequately express in English but a close equivalent is “homeland”. 143 it is really about the people who are arguing over their view of the world, of others—but not about the subject of Heimat itself.

Now, Peter Bialobrzeski spent five years traveling through the country and he has returned with thirty thousand photographs of places and non-places. He went to Andernach, Berlin, Bottrop, Eisenhüttenstadt, Frankfurt am Main, Hagen, Hamburg, Hassloch, Meissen, Offenbach, and Wolfsburg—but above all, he spent a lot of time in the vast spaces in between, in what could be called the “strangely familiar,” where there are row upon row of garage doors, streetlights, and gas stations. He brought back photos that are not dramatically shadowed, but lit up in every corner, so that it is easy to see every detail, just as I saw every detail from my grandparents’ living room window. And they are so quiet that we can hear ourselves thinking while we observe. Nobody starts jabbering—which is usually the case when talking about the subject of Heimat—when we watch the man in the new housing development raking his denuded property, or stand at the bus stop with five strangers, or wait for a traffic light, or sweep the streets, or grab a smoke on the balcony.

This is not the first time that Bialobrzeski has examined the phenomenon of “Heimat”. The title of this volume betrays that already. Shortly after the turn of the present century, when the word was still historically contaminated, Bialobrzeski joined the ongoing debate with his project Heimat. It seems to me that these photographs functioned like commentary: Germany can and should be permitted to be beautiful sometimes. They were reminiscent of the Romantics, featuring nostalgia-drenched areas between the mountains and the sea, although they were not familiar postcard scenes.

Die zweite Heimat is different upon both first and second glances. At first glance it is probably possible to claim that this homeland is not beautiful. All of the concrete. All of the block-like buildings. All of the tristesse. The hasty viewer might even think: here’s a photographer looking down upon the country and the people. At second glance, however, you catch yourself and then wonder: don’t I live in and among all of these things I just called bleak? Isn’t that me?

Die zweite Heimat

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