At the height of the Cold War, the world felt compelled to look to Berlin thanks to the defiant speeches of generations of mayors. The citizens of the divided city had to find some way to show opposition to their isolation. It was language that offered a unique way out of the feelings of isolation arising from being crushed between two power blocks. This linguistic development was, however, dismissed simply as humour in other places. Let’s just call it what it really is: a big heart combined with a big gob.

The closed city of Berlin could take comfort at the fact that it was blessed with a zoo, which had always been a popular place to go for outings. The captives stared at the captives and were pleased by the many different types of animals there (this was something the Berlin Zoo excelled at), as well as their amusing appearance and behaviour. The names of the public’s favourites back thus consisted of various plays on words: Knautschke (Creased). Knorke (Terrific). Boulette (Risole).

As a young photographer, I was often interested in trying to capture the cute side of the animals in the zoo: yawning hippos, dozing polar bears, monkeys scratching their heads. What was it that made the animals seem so human?

One day, Alexander von Reiswitz appeared in my studio and showed me his animal portraits. I was absolutely delighted with the results, which contradicted the typical experience of glamour in classic star portraits. For the record: a star is someone who generates their own celebrity through a combination of distance and carefully guarded air of mystery. It is only the media who are granted appointments with them - simply visiting them is inevitably difficult. A typical media encounter has to be artificial and lavish however - styling and make up also need to be considered. That the individual is working on a very tight schedule is positively a prerequisite here.

Or at least that’s what I thought…

Now I’m staring with astonishment at a collection of photos that shows the real protagonists of those difficult times and establish one important fact. They can be visited by anyone, and the way in which the elephants look combines reserve and calm in a way that is doesn’t seem so dozy to me. I would use the words careful, curious, attentive, and diligent; dare I say it – visionary?

It would be wrong to say that von Reiswitz has “cracked” their personalities in the same way a burglar cracks a safe code. It’s just that he has really got close to them, on their level. We should be thankful that his work doesn’t just seek to amuse - it is both interesting and respectful, combining intimacy with a great deal of discretion.

And they also remind you of an old joke: two excited researchers sit in front of a cage of monkeys and scribble notes, while one monkey says to the other, “A really interesting experiment. Every time I peel a banana, the human writes something down.”

Berlin, 03-08-03

Jim Rakete

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