“Moments in Time’’ collects amateur photographers’ images of the fall of the Berlin Wall. (Deutsche Kinemathek
When the Berlin Wall fell it was as if a John le Carré novel had suddenly been turned inside out and staged as a giant party. One could almost imagine Smiley actually smiling. Watched worldwide, the party took place at what had been the starkest flash point between East and West. An event that had previously seemed unimaginable now looks inevitable in retrospect. (Consistency is not a retrospective virtue.) There’s never been anything quite like Nov. 9, 1989.
Too much of the experience of Central Europe in the 20th century has been of history with jackboots on. This was history wearing sandals and sneakers and even going barefoot - not the most sensible thing to do in Berlin in November, but celebration trumps meteorology no matter how harsh the climate. A vivid sense of the joy, the strangeness, and, paradoxical though it might sound, the everydayness of the fall of the wall is to be found in abundance in “Moments of Time 1989/1990,’’ which runs at the Goethe-Institut Boston through Dec. 18.
One reason for the everydayness is that all 95 of the photographs in the show were taken by amateurs, citizens of the two Germanies, who happened to be on the scene. So while the pictures may not be art, or even photojournalism, they are immediate and often imbued with unexpected personality. They hang unmatted and unframed on Masonite boards, like snapshots from a national family album. This is as it should be. For what we’re seeing is an example of visual democratization chronicling a political, social, and cultural democratization.
So many of the photographs encompass a collision between the astonishing and mundane. A particularly striking example shows a man named Michael Lochelt in December 1989 crouching in a field, holding up a small pharmaceutical package, and somewhat sheepishly smiling for the camera. Two years earlier he had rowed a rubber boat across the Baltic to Denmark. The package contained the seasickness pills he’d had in his pocket. There they still were where they’d fallen out of his pocket, in the field where he’d concealed the dinghy.
The title of “Moments of Time 1989/1990’’ indicates something easily overlooked: that for Germans the fall of the wall was a momentous event but only part of a much larger, more complicated, and often vexing process. It’s still going on, really.
The show begins in the spring of 1989. The section’s title, “A Semblance of Normalcy,’’ says it all. “Protest and Flight’’ looks at the weeks leading up to Nov. 9, with East Germans fleeing in increasing numbers to other, less repressive Warsaw bloc nations. “The Border Opens’’ records the events of Nov. 9. “Encounters and Explorations’’ is like watching a reunion between long-separated siblings. “The Transformation of the GDR’’ looks at East Germany in the process of ceasing to be a country - and starting to become a state of mind. And “German Unification’’ reminds us that what for the rest of the West was almost an afterthought was for Germans the great, and sometimes bitter, fruit of the wall’s coming down.
The show sprawls over two floors, which further adds to the sense of quasi-familial informality. Downstairs there’s a 30-minute documentary consisting of archival footage along with reflections on the fall of the wall from four correspondents who covered the event - one from each of the major Allied powers of World War II. The US participant is Tom Brokaw, who manages to convey the wonder and bemusement he still feels. Upstairs there’s a selection of videos taken by private citizens and a slide show on life in the GDR shortly after the wall came down. A much expanded version of the exhibition, with new material being regularly added, is available at www.wir-waren-so-frei.de.
It’s worth noting that although the photographs weren’t taken by professionals, they lack the sense of profligate, click-away casualness we’ve grown accustomed to in an age of cellphone cameras. Those bystanders and participants who took pictures had to have thought in advance, at least a little bit, about what they were doing (“Oh, I better remember to bring along a camera - just in case’’). Geopolitics isn’t the only thing that’s radically changed in the last 20 years. So have our visual procedures and assumptions.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.