Monday, April 22, 2013
While in Berlin last summer a weekend did not pass where I did not visit the Schöneberg Rathaus flea market. It was there that I purchased photographs, most of them from the thirties, forties and fifties. Of those photos, many appeared to be from East Berlin, though sometimes it was hard to tell.
Yesterday was my first visit to the market since last summer -- but only one table had photos. In this case, a small box, inside which lay evidence of a life that appeared to end early: that of a woman who perhaps lost her husband in the war and raised her son on her own.
After looking through the photos the vendor told me I could have the entire box for twenty euros. I told him I was only interested in one photo.
I shook my head.
Okay, he said disappointedly -- one photo, one euro. A bad deal for you.
I gave him his euro and he plucked the photo from my hand.
I have to see what is so important, he said.
Yet having seen the photo, he was still unsatisfied.
What is it about this photo? he asked.
I asked him to give it back to me and I would read from it every word.
Six women gathered, I began.
Five, he said quickly, as if to catch me in a lie.
Six, as evidenced by the empty seat.
Why not seven? The photographer being the seventh.
He had a point.
Six women, he continued. One is in the kitchen, and the photographer is a man.
Feeling goaded, I returned to the apartment and Googled the handwritten date on the back (27 February 1958).
Three things came up:
The USSR performs a nuclear test at Novaya Zemlya.
Nancy Spungen is born.
The president of Columbia Pictures dies of a heart attack.
I returned to the photo.
Five women, the sixth having left her chair to take the photo.
The four women in the background listen at various registers: anticipation, amusement, politeness, impatience. The woman in the foreground is reading from a letter. How she is captured -- the angle, with just the right amount of shadow and light -- has her at some remove. For that reason I want her to be the subject. But she is not, and I will get to that.
The room they are in is small, as evidenced by the door, which three of the four women in the background are seated in front of. It could be a closet door, but it is too wide. The room could also be in East Berlin, in which case placing oneself before a door is a good way to buy time when the Stasi come looking for letters. But that might be premature. Based on their clothing it is likely we are in the early-forties.
Near the upper-right corner is the shadow of a lampshade and, to a lesser degree, the lampshade itself. Between it and a picture hung rather high on the wall is a fireplace, likely built long after the building in which it sits (you can tell by the design of the door), perhaps in the thirties.
From my recollection of the other photos it appears that the mother of the boy whose father might have died in the war is the woman on the far left, her husband not yet dead, and that the letter being read is news from the front. I recall as well that there were pictures of the boy standing before information that might tell me when this photo was taken.
So I returned to the market to once again look through the photos.
The vendor saw me coming. He was smiling. I sold them, he said proudly, just after you left.
He seemed to enjoy my disappointment.
While we were talking an older man was looking over your shoulder. As soon as you left he paid me ten euro.
I pulled out the photo, to look at it again. Then I showed it to him. Did he look like this woman here, on the far left? I asked him.
He looked at me aghast. Then he burst into laughter. He was a man, he said. He didn't look like a woman -- he looked like a man!