A world traveler, cab driver, and teacher, Nelly Rau-Häring is, above all, a photographer. Born in Switzerland in 1947 she made Berlin her home in the mid-1960s. Like no one else, she recorded the city’s life, boredom, joie-de-vivre, struggle, and exuberance. A selection of her photos of West and East Berlin spanning over four decades are showcased in at f3–freiraum für fotografie in Berlin.
In 1965, Berlin was a wound. Newly built structures stood next to gutted out ruins. Many façades were pockmarked with bullet holes. Four years earlier, the city was brutally dissected with barbed wire and, within weeks, by a more concrete barrier of iron and cement, complete with watchtowers and deadly booby traps. Entire streets were amputated, families torn apart. The eighteen-year-old Nelly Rau-Häring left the shelter of her native Switzerland for a place that, to many, was a no-man’s land.
Rau-Häring’s first images, like the one of passengers waiting for a train at the Zoo Station in West Berlin, were shot with a medium-format 6x6 camera. The young photographer had enough spunk to withstand the severe gaze of even the most reluctant subjects. Yet there is more to this picture than meets the eye: with a keen sense for storytelling, Rau-Häring managed to take a snapshot of society. Impoverished war veterans with worn-out shoes, a military cap, and old-fashioned clothes share a bench with elegantly dressed men and women: one has an expensive camera hanging on a shoulder strap, the women sport stylish hats and purses… Significantly, they are looking in different directions: the larger group eastward and the life-weary couple to the west.
A 35-mm highway
Although being a female street photographer has never been easy, Rau-Häring likes to point out that gender did have certain advantages: “people just didn’t take you seriously, and you could play the fool.” To support her photography, she took up another unwomanly trade and became a taxi driver. She took advantage of passes accorded to foreigners to cross between East and West.
Being a cab driver afforded Rau-Häring certain invisibility; and to snatch every opportunity while on the job, she switched to a 35mm camera. She could spot images in an instant, just like she could size up a potential fare. The three men standing at the corner of Adalbert and Naunyn Streets are not likely customers: they seem to be locals, inhabitants of the Turkish neighborhood at the edge of West Berlin, not far from where the f3 gallery is located today.
Street-level view of History
“You have to love people,” Nelly Rau-Häring sums up the success of her photographs. “You have to love people like Walker Evans did. I can tell from his pictures that he loved humankind.” The same can be said of Rau-Häring’s images. The artist felt equally at home driving on a half-empty highway with a single customer in the back seat, as she did among May Day crowds in East Berlin or soccer fans at the Olympia Stadium.
She made no distinction between East and West. On either side of the wall she found people trying to recover from the war and live their lives. She portrayed them with tenderness and not without humor. The military man walks out on May Day with a baby in his arms, rather than a banner or a gun. A viewing platform that seems to mock watchtowers erected on the other side, allows a “Westerner” to look over the wall at Bernauer Street: perhaps he used to live there or pass it on his way to work. Nelly Rau-Häring is also present when the wall comes down. But unlike the “serious” journalist, perched on top of his car along with his stately office furniture, she is on the ground reminding us that the press and their cameras and mics are also a part of the historical moment.
By Ela Kotkowska
Nelly Rau-Häring, Ost-West Berlin
November 8, 2019 to January 19, 2020
f3–freiraum für fotografie, Waldemarstraße 17, 10179 Berlin