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New Left Review I/190, November-December 1991


Julian Stallabrass

Autographs and Images: Snapshots of Prague and Berlin

The changing visual environment of formerly Communist countries, in flux under the pressures of capitalist enterprise and economic chaos, is so provisional, its elements apparently so unwarranted, that it raises many questions in the mind of any visitor from the West. This essay is about some of those questions and was stimulated by witnessing the rapid changes occurring in Berlin and Prague. It is about the role which tourism, the creation of images, and the writing of names play in the transformation. The East, now bearing the first marks of private commerce, can serve as a lens with which to examine the raw appearance of capital. It gives the lie to those who argued that the systems of the East and the West were essentially similar. While in some ways this analysis is subjective and visual, I shall argue that this is not in itself a fault. I should add that although this is an essay which calls out for illustration, there is a good—though extrinsic—reason why it is unillustrated, for half an hour before I was due to leave Berlin my camera bag was stolen. Apart from the cameras—in principle, at least, replaceable machines despite the occasional Heideggerian sense of presence they give on malfunctioning—was the loss of the thirty-or-so rolls of exposed film—images of Prague and Berlin. These are doubly irreplaceable, for in addition to all the unrepeatable contingencies which make a photograph (the atmospheric conditions, the combinations of figures, the dispositions of objects and shadows), the subject of these pictures was largely the transient aspect of cities in the process of vertiginous change. No doubt these latent images will finish on the city dump, and this is curiously fitting, since they will be joined there—eventually—by many of their subjects. The reader will, I hope, accept that what follows is to an extent an exercise in compensation. But it is not only that. The East, now a plane of intersection where the physical fabric of the old systems persists alongside the incursions of a shiny and self-confident West, throws difference into strong relief, and much of this contrast is based around the image and the signature, to which the practice of photography is intimately related.

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