Amerika Haus C/O Berlin: Magnum Contact Sheet exhibition

While in Berlin, I visited the Amerika Haus, which just re-opened in 2014, to see the excellent Magnum Contact Sheets exhibition.

Originally serving as a culture and information center of the USA in Berlin, it was often the scene of many historical controversies, particularly after World War II and during the Vietnam War, but was left largely ignored in recent years. It’s now undergone a reconstruction and has opened its doors once again as a space for cultural encounters. (Check out their website for more info.)

The exhibition was absolutely fantastic. Lots of great information, wonderfully laid out and so interesting to see the “behind the scenes” work of such iconic images and the talented photographers who took them.

These are my top 5 favourite photographs from the exhibition:

1. Herbert List, Hamburg, Germany. 1903 – 1975

Photography by Herbert List. ITALY. Liguria. Portofino. 1936.
Photography by Herbert List. ITALY. Liguria. Portofino. 1936.

I like the simplicity of this photo, capturing that moment when you lie down on a warm beach, feel the sun warming you and all your muscles relax into the sand. That moment when you sigh to yourself “ahhhh, holidays”.

I imagined a story of a local walking his dog on the beach, stopping for a swim to cool down, then a lie down to dry off. I look at the happiness on the dog’s face, their needs so easily met and disposition so naturally optimistic, and suddenly this isn’t a picture of a single moment at the start of a holiday; this is the start of an entire lifetime, a way of life that will carry this young man into old age, his life a series of walks and swims and never-ending sunshine.

Magnum Photos quotes Herbert List describing his images as:

composed visions where [my] arrangements try to capture the magical essence inhabiting and animating the world of appearances.

I definitely think that comes across in this photograph.


2. Marc Riboud, Lyon, France. 1937. 

The Eiffel Tower painter. Photography by Marc Riboud FRANCE. Paris. 1953.
The Eiffel Tower Painter. Photography by Marc Riboud FRANCE. Paris. 1953.

The museum plaque shared the following story Marc Riboud told about taking this photo:

In 1953, I leave Lyon for Paris. These are my first steps in the capital, and in photography. With my Leica and only one film, I’m strolling near the Eiffel Tower, which is being repainted. I suddenly noticed these paintbrush-bearing acrobats, and wishing to see them more closely … I walk up to the tower, maybe one hour of walking. Hanging onto the little spiral suitcase with only my 50mm lens, I can’t take close-ups or wide-angle shots, so I have only one choice left: that of the right moment. These constraints, these limited means, were my good luck in fact, and the choice was easy from this contact sheet, which isn’t always the case. The best photo strikes the eye, as the right chord strikes the ear.

I just love the significance of him capturing the ‘right moment’. The way the painter is balancing, Riboud’s good fortune to be walking past on that day, at that time, to witness him painting the tower. I enjoyed the magic of this photograph and the message of ‘right place, right time’ and what that role of fate, or whatever you want to call it, plays in our own lives. Not to mention my sheer amazement at getting to see what the painter did every day. I’d never really thought about who painted the Eiffel tower, or how.


3. Martine Franck, Antwerp, Belgium. 1938-2012.

Tulku KHENTRUL LODRO RABSEL (12 years old) with his tutor LHAGYEL.Photography by Martine Franck. NEPAL. Bodnath. Shechen Monastery. 1996
Tulku KHENTRUL LODRO RABSEL (12 years old) with his tutor LHAGYEL.Photography by Martine Franck. NEPAL. Bodnath. Shechen Monastery. 1996

I love this photo for its spontaneity. Much like Riboud in his taking of the Eiffel tower painter, Martine Franck explained that she had been taking photos during the boy’s lessons and all of a sudden the pigeon just flew in the window and landed on the teacher’s head. For a split second, everyone tried to process what had happened, and then they all burst into laugher. Luckily, she still had her wits about her enough to snap a picture. I just love that she’d managed to capture the joy of that moment and in the printing of this image, personified the random delights life brings.

On the Magnum Photos website, they published this quote of Franck’s:

A photograph isn’t necessarily a lie, but nor is it the truth. It’s more of a fleeting, subjective impression. What I most like about photography is the moment that you can’t anticipate: you have to be constantly watching for it, ready to welcome the unexpected. 

It’s such a lovely quote about photography, which I guess can also be applied to life: that we must be constantly watching for that moment that you can’t ever anticipate.


4. Alessandra Sanguinetti, New York, USA. 1968.

The necklace. Photography by Alessandra Sanguinetti. ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 1999.
The necklace. Photography by Alessandra Sanguinetti. ARGENTINA. Buenos Aires. 1999.

It was hard for me to put my finger on precisely what it was that I liked about this  photograph. I like how aware the girl was of the camera, knowing her photo was being taken and trying to pose to appear grown-up, whilst remaining completely unaware how child-like she was by carrying out this natural behaviour of young girls to dress themselves up in their mother’s jewellery. It was sweet.

Plus I love the colours and the clash of patterns, her red top and purple sarong, the green and blue patterned bedspread. I love the flaking of the walls in the background, the green chipped off, exposing a brown-beige plaster.


5. Elliott Erwitt, Paris, France. 1928. (American)

Felix, Gladys and Rover. Photography by Elliott Erwitt. USA. New York. 1974.
Felix, Gladys and Rover. Photography by Elliott Erwitt. USA. New York. 1974.

Do I even need to explain what I like about this photo? I liked it when I first saw it because I thought the tiny dog in his fancy hat was cute. I didn’t even notice that the pair of legs on the left weren’t a human’s but that of a giant dog! My friend had to point it out to me. Then I fell in love with the image even more.

We are all just little creatures really. No matter how big we are, there’s always something bigger. This image for me, aside from its squeal-worthy cuteness, is all about keeping perspective. I think of it when I find myself getting caught up in all the angst of my tiny, yet seemingly huge, problems.


magnumcontactsheetsSo all in all, it was a great day at Amerika Haus, and a wonderful exhibition. If anything I’ve written about interests you, there’s plenty of information on all the Magnum photographers at Magnum Photos.

You can also purchase the Magnum Contact Sheets book. It’s not cheap but a really interesting and stunning publication. The link is to Amazon but maybe you can find it cheaper elsewhere.

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