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Miron Zownir’s Berlin Noir
1980Photography Miron Zownir

Photos of Berlin’s freaks and fringe outsiders over 30 years

Miron Zownir captured the weirdest and most wonderful characters that ruled the city’s underbelly both before and after the fall of the Berlin wall

The underground icon has spent his life giving a platform to those existing on the outside; whether it’s the dangerous, sexual energy of pre-gentrification NYC, or the horrifying plight of Russia’s homeless community, Zownir’s oracular, monochrome stills shift their viewer’s gaze to worlds that go otherwise concealed. It’s a mode that led the late writer Terry Southern to proclaim him the “radical poet of photography”.

Berlin Noir, the latest book from the German photographer, sees him continuing to delve beneath the surface, presenting a sprawling retrospect of the eponymous city’s subcultural underbelly. Compiled of photos taken between 1978 and 2016, it follows previous work NYC RIP as an ode to inner-city otherness. The Berlin of Miron Zownir’s lens is timeless in its documentation of the dirty, weird, sexy and shocking.  

To mark the book’s release, we spoke with Zownir about the ever-present threat of gentrification in cities, living without artistic compromise and why he likes black and white better than colour.

Some of the photos in Berlin Noir were taken as early as 1978. Why did you decide to compile and release this retrospect of the city now?

Miron Zownir: Berlin Noir is after Down&Out in Moscow and NYC RIP – the third monograph I’ve published with Pogo Books. Before that, my photobooks have been selected in another context according to topics such as sex, violence, poverty, loneliness and exhibitionism. It wasn’t until I started to scan all of my negatives that I realised how many photos I’ve made that portrayed those cities in a unique way – as a time witness of outsiders, the lost and rejected, atmospheres and scenes that had no place in any official city guide and as a witness of a particular zeitgeist and energy that wasn’t visible, or comfortable to acknowledge. In the case of Berlin Noir, it was also a transitory process between two worlds before and after the wall.

“I tell stories otherwise untold” – Miron Zownir

What is it that you think makes the city such a mecca for the subcultural and the nonconforming?

Miron Zownir: There are many reasons. I don’t want to start with its history, or the 20s, since other great cities such as London, Paris, NYC and Los Angeles had great periods that were also attractive to nonconformists, iconoclast and visionaries of all sorts. But when those cities were already conquered by – or in transition to – gentrification, Berlin was still walled in and given up by investors or capitalistic speculators. It was a heaven for draft evaders, anarchists, drop-outs and junkies. There was an abundance of jobs and anyone who didn’t like to work got by easily. The alternative scene could grow since it didn’t have to compete with the establishment. Nobody respectable wanted to live in Kreuzberg, Neukölln or Wedding.

Almost 30 years later its subculture still benefits from that fact. It’s about the balance of the established culture and new endemic forces with fresh and unconventional ideas, visions, concepts and viewpoints. Or, just a way of life. And that’s the crux – in what other great city can a non-established nonconformist artist survive without compromising his work? Or without chasing for underpaid jobs that distract him from his real purpose in life, even if it’s just an illusion? In what other great city could so many fancy, kinky or alternative nightclubs exist by providing reasonable priced entertainment? But Berlin is getting tougher, poorer and more expensive and it’s just a matter of time until it becomes as cynical and unaffordable as any other gentrified capital.

Was there a model or schema for finding these peripheral characters and stories, or did it you stumble upon them all?

Miron Zownir: I didn’t have a model or schema, I followed from the beginning my interests and passions. I did a lot of different jobs as a doorman, barman and bouncer in nightclubs, demolition worker, writer, bodyguard, furniture mover – and I mostly lived in poor neighbourhoods. I didn’t have to look too hard for interesting subjects but when I did I had no problem to find them. It was as if I was guided by Virgil.

You shared NYC RIP a few years ago, which is similar in its exploration of a city’s wild underbelly. How do the two cities compare in terms of their subcultures?

Miron Zownir: I only know NYC from the 80’. And of cause then it was the most exciting city in the world – cosmopolitan and crazy, open to any experimental idea or concept, busting with alternative, artistic and sexual energy pushing every taboo over the limit. More so than London, Berlin or any other great city. But of course, it has changed and more to its disadvantage than Berlin. In Berlin, its subculture is still vital and alive while in NYC you must be established and successful if you want to have an apartment or studio. You are crowed together with people and lose your artistic focus trying to keep up with the requirements of survivals. Berlin still has lots of artist, musicians and performers who create independently and free of any lobbies, dependencies or commercial obligations but few are commercially successful, recognised by the establishment or appreciated by major galleries, museums or collectors.    

Regardless of the subject matter, you’ve always remained committed to the monochrome in your work. Why?

Miron Zownir: I guess black and white triggers your imagination more. It’s more removed from the world you consciously experience and for me it’s more intriguing and mysterious. I grew up in a black and white world virtually represented by newspapers, magazines or TV. All my favourite photographers and filmmaker work in black and white. I dream black and white. I like black and white better than colour.

Your work tends to focus on those who have been marginalised – be it by forces beyond their control, or by their own accord. Do you view yourself as an ambassador of sorts for those whose stories may otherwise go untold?

Miron Zownir: I might make people aware of situations, but I doubt it that it has the influence of an ambassador. The attention to my work is still marginalised compared to other media exposure. How many books, films paintings or photos influenced anyone to get up from his comfortable couch and change the pattern, outlook or ethical values of his accustomed life? It’s convenient to think your work has that much influence but I don’t think it has – unless you write a book like Capital or the Bible. But yes, I tell stories otherwise untold.

Berlin Noir, published by Pogo Books, is available to buy now