If you’ve ever partied in Berlin, you’ll be familiar with Berghain’s “no photo” policy. The doorman of this legendary European nightclub slaps small, round stickers over every smartphone camera that enters the establishment, so you can’t sneak any snaps. Rules in nightclubs are usually eyeroll worthy, but this strict door policy hasn’t always been the case in Berlin – a city that saw its nightlife boom before the digital era.
Now, some of the most spontaneous, salacious and downright raucous photos from Berlin’s nightlife are going in view in a sprawling retrospective at the C/O Berlin photography museum on 12th September.
No Photos on the Dance Floor! Berlin 1989 – Today features over 100 photos from the 1980s onward, taken by Wolfgang Tillmans, Camille Blake, Ben de Biel and more. They showcase the surge of techno from its early days as a D.I.Y. venture in factory warehouses, featuring now-defunct nightclubs, fetish partygoers and portraits of Peaches and Nina Kraviz.
It traces back to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a time when industrial factories were turned into party spaces like Tresor, Ufo and Planet. These nightclubs were not only hubs of techno music but saw the rise of some of the world’s greatest DJs, helping carve out an electronic music scene long before it was mainstream.
While some of the nightclubs are still alive today, most of them are closed, making these photos an ode to a time of Berlin’s yesteryear. With commentary from the photographers, here are a few photos in the forthcoming exhibit in a trip down Berlin’s hazy memory lane.
SVEN VATH AT LOVEPARADE, 1992
The Love Parade was the most popular electronic dance music festival in Berlin. It kicked off in 1989 with 150 people as a peaceful protest, intending to unify all people through music. It ran until the early 2000s before spreading to other parts of Germany, like Rurh and Bochum, and ended in 2010 after the Love Parade in Duisburg left 21 people dead and hundreds were injured from overcrowding. Berlin documentary photographer Ben de Biel (who also co-founded three nightclubs in Berlin in the early 1990s) took a photo at a Love Parade in 1992, set in Kurfürstendamm in west Berlin.
“On the truck from the right is Sven Väth with a water pistol, Rose dancing with her hands up and Inga Humpe from the back,” said de Biel. “I can’t remember how many people showed up that day, but there was a huge crowd. The Love Parade in 1992 was one of the last ones that had the real spirit of the techno community before techno became mainstream, in many ways.”
OUTSIDE SNAX CLUB, 2001
This photo was taken outside of the now-closed Snax club by Turner Prize-winning photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans, in 2001 (a regular gay party called Snax continues at Berghain today).
“My images examine the essence of what it means to be human; they are not about gawping at crazy young people and dismissing everyone else as boring losers,” said Tillmans. “I never sought to objectively document people, and the fact that my photographs nevertheless contain so many individuals, is in part because my role is not that of an observer, but rather that of either a participant or the director of scenes I imagine. The photographs should be taken as authentic because they convey my authentic experiences, but they aren’t ‘real’ in the way a documentary photographer would use the term. I care about what unites us, not what divides us.”
MARCO AT INSEL DER JUGEND, 1991
Brembs, a longtime Berlin resident, has been documenting the art and music subcultures in Berlin since the 1990s. He was the former staff photographer of the local techno magazine, Frontpage. This is where, from 1991 to 1997, he took over 20,000 photos of Berlin’s party culture, documenting the rise of techno’s early days at Tresor club, among others. This photo, entitled “Marco,” was taken by Brembs in 1991, depicting a lone dancer standing in the middle of an empty dancefloor, dressed in black latex and sneakers. “Marco was a raver from day one, this image was made at one of the first ever outdoor parties in Berlin, at the ‘Insel der Jugend’ party in 1991,” he said.
GOLDIE AT DRUM & BASS PARTY, 1994
Brembs took a close-up snapshot of Britain’s own Goldie, the now-recognised DJ with a set of 24 gold teeth. However, this photo of the jungle pioneer was taken at a gig in Berlin back in 1994, just as he was just becoming recognised outside of the UK. “Pictures were actually not allowed at this Drum & Bass party in 1994, but I was able to take a good shot, since I was so close up,” he said.
Brembs always shot with an analogue film camera, with rolls of 36 photos at a time. Film processing would take about a week, then he’d head out to the next parties the following weekend. His photos, as do many in this exhibit, detail the freedom of clubbing in a time before smartphones – and surveillance. “The images are full of energy and show how people celebrated then,” he said. “We heard, danced and lived techno – even though we were totally analogue kids.”