The first signs of spring are trying to fight their way out and through the weeds in my garden; I’ve been watching the green buds and now pristine white flowers of snowdrops near the remains of a pear tree and in various hidden corners of the carnage which should be a lawn and flowerbeds. We’ve just had about five solid days of rain, sometimes warm, mostly cold, but always falling at that time of day when I either wish to wander out and collect the morning post from the other side of town, or go shopping on the other side of town. I usually awaken to clear skies and the promise of a mild day which, for some unknown reason, always changes into overcast and raining between my smile at the bedroom window and my grimace at the open door on my way out. Even my cat hesitates before venturing outside, but the chances of foraging for mice through the undergrowth always wins over wind and weather.
With the clean spring weather comes one of the great delights of life: travelling into the city of Bremen and visiting the open air flea market set up along the banks of the river Weser. This has been an event for many years, begun long before my time here in Germany, and has changed with the years too. In the mid-nineties, when I was still new and fresh in the country and my knowledge of the German language limited, I had my own stand here. Many of those selling goods made their living from the stalls and tables they set out; there was plenty of second hand, some new and all generally of high quality. After a while – I had my place for about a year, each Saturday, no matter what the weather was like – other people began creeping in with fake goods; jeans which claimed to be from Levi being one favourite. Then the market area began expanding further down the river bank, along the promenade, but with carpet and rugs on the ground, and all sort of rubbish piled up and offered for small change. The respectable sellers gradually disappeared. Today it is a mixture of people who sell interesting and worthwhile things, and those with a carpet on the ground, although sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
From the middle of March through to the end of October this promenade is filled with life – by good weather – with the sellers on a lower level, right down by the water, and a whole street full of beer gardens and restaurants along the higher level. There is live music, the occasional clown, and a wealth of other attractions which makes for a good day out when nothing pressing is on the calendar. I tend to travel into Bremen every Saturday, if I can, and wander along between the stalls and carpets, adding to my bohemian collection of art and photography whenever I can. Some of the dealers let you bargain, some insult merely insult and turn their backs when you make another offer. Generally, by these last sort, I wander off and leave them to it, coming back four or five hours later when the market is closing and making them an even lower offer. Not surprisingly, they accept.
Sometimes it takes considerably more hard work, when I see something that I like and wish to own, and some ingenuity too. Last year, at the height of the market, I saw a small green Daci camera. Made of metal, if you cup your hands together – as if drinking water from a fountain – it would fit easily in the palm of your hands. I made an offer early in the day, but the dealer wanted fifty Euro and wasn’t prepared to negotiate. He had three or four things on a small rug, but the camera was the only item which really interested me. I came back at the end of the day, made another offer and pointed out – on the Internet – offers of ten and twelve Euro for the same camera. Of course, these were starting prices by eBay and not true values; the price he was asking, bearing in mind the age of the camera and its condition, was a good one. I just didn’t want to pay that much. He turned my offer down, and we parted ways.
He was there the next week too, with exactly the same things laid out in his square metre of space, and exactly the same price for his Daci camera. This time, though, he went down five Euro at the end of the day, and came up with a tale about how much he had paid for the camera and he didn’t want to make a loss and so on. We parted ways, he with his camera, me with my money. The third week – I can be very persistent, which some might term obsessive – I was there again, as was he. The camera was there and I had no doubt he would try for the higher price if at all possible. I, however, had decided my patience was exhausted. Fortunately I had my youngest daughter with me – she loves visiting with me at the weekend because she knows we’re likely to be at the flea market and it breaks the monotony of life where she normally lives – who, then still only ten, didn’t yet have the same level of cunning as me. I sent her, carefully keeping out of the way myself, to the dealer with his camera and ten Euro. She wanted the camera, she explained, as a present for a friend and had managed to collect all her pocket money for the month. Ten Euro was too little, the man said. If, my daughter suggested, she included the money which had planned for her midday meal, which was another five Euro, and that was really all the money she had in the world?
I suppose some people would call it cheating, some might claim it is taking unfair advantage of the innocence of a young woman, or of the kind heartedness of the seller. Personally I think almost everything is fair in love and war, as long as no one is hurt. I have a small Daci camera in green for fifteen Euro instead of fifty, and it looks good on my display shelf, next to the same model in red I bought elsewhere. My daughter was also, after her initial worries, proud of her role in the whole, and enjoyed telling her story in school right through the next week. And the dealer most probably found the camera in a pile of rubbish by the side of the street which, surprisingly enough, many people make a business of checking whenever the bulk collection is on. I have many hundreds of photographs and pictures which have been rescued from being dumped in a landfill somewhere; things that other people do not want such as old – very old – family photographs and original works of art, complete with frames and unbroken glass. Perhaps it is not so surprising that there are people who check the bulk rubbish, or take a glance into a normal trash can on their way here and there: it is possible to make a great deal of money with the right hand, with an eye for what is there and what is worthwhile.
Which saddens me, to a certain extent; not that the people check, what they do with their lives and how they legally earn their income makes no difference to me at all, but the fact that such things are cast aside, thrown out in the first place. I have been able to buy up albums of photographs from the 1890s which had just be thrown out on the street awaiting disposal; that is, albums which contain the complete history of a family in photographs. But no one today knows who they are. Back then, in 1880 or 1890, the small cards were sent out to all and sundry, passed around as mementoes and as gifts. People knew who was in each of the photographs, and rarely made notes with names and dates. Now, over one hundred years later, no one has the faintest idea who they are and, even sadder, they often do not care. Which is good for me as a collector because who the people were makes little difference to me either, but the names of the photographers, where they lived and worked, when they worked and which exhibitions they attended, which prizes they won for their art, that is what interests me.
Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever.
So said Aaron Siskind, one of the greatest abstract photographers of modern America. Film may well not forget, but we most certainly do or, worse still, we remember but forget to tell those who come after us, fail to share our experiences, our knowledge. And we destroy the film, as a metaphor for memory, which contains our past and that of our families, friends, our entire generation, without a second thought.
The area around the flea market in Bremen is one of the oldest parts of the city. There was once a smaller river – the Balge – which flowed into the Weser near to where all the sands are, running from the centre of the old city which once, in the seventeenth century, was used as the main harbour coffee, fine linens and all the other necessary goods delivered from overseas, sent out to other lands. A few ships line the river banks, all for tourists rather than any other form of trade. There is a theatre ship, several restaurants, and the usual mooring positions for trips out along the river, to see and experience the sights and sounds of a hustling city, without having to mingle with those doing all the bustling. The old harbour has long since vanished, and the Balge is remembered only through a series of signs set into walls or the roadway; remarkably few people know now that it even existed. Life along the river has changed from the hectic of ships and barges being tied up, unloaded and prepared for further voyages, to that of a more relaxed nature, with the bars and flowing beer with pretzels, sushi and Asian takeaways specialities. At night, but only on the weekends, everything is brightly lit and there is a party atmosphere. During the normal working day the entire street is often deserted, forgotten, a remnant of the last festival held there, swept clean and waiting patiently for the next influx of young and old.
Last week I had the great pleasure of experiencing someone else who was almost forgotten by all but a few experts and collectors, a photographer born here in Germany back at the turn of the last century. It was claimed, in the catalogue to this exhibition of works by Annelise Kretschmer, that she was one of the first women to open her own studio in Germany, which isn’t quite true but I will let them have their small claim to fame. She was born in 1903 and opened a study above her parent’s clothing store in Dortmund in 1929 which, despite the attempts of the National Socialists from 1933 onwards, stayed in business in various ways until the Seventies. Much earlier than her, as far as studios go, I have several women photographers in my collection who ran their own businesses between ten and thirty years earlier – a good example being Elisabeth Schuldt who opened hers in 1905 in Flensburg – and I am sure I can find others even earlier than this. It is true, however, that Kretschmer had the same problems as many other women of the times, right through to the Fifties and Sixties. It was, in the earlier years, impossible for a woman to own and run her own business, unless she was involved with clothing repairs or household goods. Women were indulged when it came to things like art, and locked out of higher education unless very lucky indeed, or with a rich and influential sponsor. In the richest families a young woman could expect private tuition, but not a university education.
Not that this restriction stopped those who really wanted to get on, and some of the greatest salons for intellectuals, for the highly educated, for those with knowledge and wisdom, were run by society women in the late nineteenth century through to the Thirties. Most of them were in France, admittedly, but then society was centred around such major metropoles as Paris and London – and to a much lesser extent New York and Berlin – anyway. Artistic communities, even for photographers, tended to be within easy reach of major cities, mainly because these artists, despite their claims to being free and completely separate from the draws and sins of modern society, needed to sell their works in order to remain free and removed from such sin. Which meant, of course, that they could travel in to town and hold court in one or another of the most popular salons, sell their wares, and return home – satiated in food and talk, and rich in new commissions – to the simple village life afterwards.
Which is, I suppose, pretty much how my life works too: I travel into the big city each week, sometimes more often, throw myself into the social and business life there, and return later to my quote town – which is more of a village – on the distant outskirts none the worse for wear. Perhaps slightly poorer when it comes to cash in the bank, but better off in many other ways. And my biggest problem in life is trying to find enough space to store cameras bought, photographs found and books read so that I can still move safely from one end of the house to the other.