Berlin­ers love a good lake

Germany provides quite the setting for those in favour of al fresco nudity. Photographer Spyros Rennt captures the bustling queer scene at Berlin’s favourite outdoor hang-out spot.

There’s a word for it: limnophil­ia. Love of lakes. And if you’ve been to the Ger­man cap­i­tal in the sum­mer heat, you’ll know that Berlin­ers love a good lake – whether it be for a quaint fam­i­ly pic­nic, skin­ny dip­ping with friends or wind­ing down post-Berghain. Berlin is so beau­ti­ful in the sum­mer,” says queer pho­tog­ra­ph­er Spy­ros Ren­nt, as we stroll along­side the leafy lake of Krumme Lanke on the edge of Grunewald for­est, south-west of the city. The lakes are like the cher­ry on top!” 

Dis­il­lu­sioned by a gru­elling career in com­put­er engi­neer­ing and the dire polit­i­cal land­scape of his native Greece, Ren­nt moved to Berlin in 2011 to seek cre­ative free­dom and, well, what­ev­er else was on the menu. Since then, he has gained near cult sta­tus by doc­u­ment­ing queer life in the Ger­man cap­i­tal through his per­son­al expe­ri­ences, from the wildest sex par­ties to mun­dane out­door scener­ies, with unlike­ly lyri­cism. He’s prob­a­bly best-known for his unapolo­getic dick pics, but it was the photographer’s few­er, qui­eter lake shots pop­u­lat­ed by wild swim­mers that struck me the most when I first flicked through his self-pub­lished book Anoth­er Excess. I want­ed to know more. 

I pho­to­graph mas­culin­i­ty as I view it, in the pub­lic space,” says Ren­nt of his en plein air shots. Sex­u­al­i­ty and sen­su­al­i­ty are inter­twined.” Indeed, the homo­erot­ic trope of the bathers runs deep in art his­to­ry. At the turn of the 19th cen­tu­ry, Eng­lish impres­sion­ist painter Hen­ry Scott Tuke had almost entire­ly ded­i­cat­ed his oeu­vre to the depic­tion of pearl-skinned nude boys swim­ming and splash­ing in the great out­doors, much to the joy of his gay friends, includ­ing Oscar Wilde. In pho­tog­ra­phy, Kei­th Vaugh­an pro­duced black and white prints of male bathers as ear­ly as the 1930s, so it comes as no sur­prise that the genre has since resur­faced in con­tem­po­rary works, includ­ing those of Wolf­gang Till­mans, Ren Hang and Manuel Moncayo.

Thanks to a long tra­di­tion of natur­ism, Ger­many pro­vides quite the set­ting for those in favour of al fres­co nudi­ty. I do nud­ism in the sum­mer,” says Ren­nt, who divides his time between Berlin and Athens. It’s sexy and it’s cute, it’s lib­er­at­ing and demo­c­ra­t­ic,” he says with con­vic­tion. Ris­ing in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry, the nation­al Freikör­perkul­tur move­ment (aka FKK’) has con­tin­ued to pro­mote an eman­ci­pat­ed approach towards non-sex­u­al naked­ness, par­tic­u­lar­ly promi­nent in Berlin. To this day, it has shaped many of Germany’s lib­er­al laws on pub­lic nudi­ty, wide­ly prac­tised across the capital’s lakes and parks. Being naked with your friends, it’s like, queer joy,” says Rennt.

No won­der the city’s aquat­ic jew­els (a net­work of 80 in total) and their idyl­lic sur­round­ings attract gays en masse all sum­mer. They’re like com­mu­ni­ty spots for queers,” says Ren­nt, jok­ing that Teufelsee in the bor­ough of Char­lot­ten­burg-Wilmers­dorf (pop­u­lar for cruis­ing and after-par­ties) is often dubbed Berghain by the lake’. You nev­er know what you’re going to find. It’s like a dec­la­ra­tion of free­dom, through fol­low­ing your desires; some­thing queer peo­ple always try to achieve.”

As we keep walk­ing through the irreg­u­lar trail bor­der­ing the lake, two teenage boys are enjoy­ing a patch of shade under the trees, knee-deep in water. Ren­nt stops and asks if he can pho­to­graph them. It’s for a mag­a­zine,” he says. The boys look at each oth­er for a moment, laugh­ing ner­vous­ly, before they agree. One of them dons a pair of black box­er briefs, soaked with water. The boy insists that he should put on his shorts, else he will look sil­ly. They pose stiffly and Ren­nt pro­ceeds to shoot them with his Olym­pus Mju-II.

Despite Freikör­perkul­tur’s pro­gres­sive val­ues, Ren­nt explains that peo­ple are often self-con­scious in front of the cam­era and that he finds sub­jects to be more approach­able in a city like New York.

We end our walk at Krumme Lanke’s nud­ist beach, a pop­u­lar spot for Berlin’s soix­ante-huitards and hip­sters alike – most in the nude, but not all. You run into peo­ple here,” says Ren­nt, as we sit on a large tie-dye cot­ton blan­ket and soak in the late-after­noon sun­shine. To our left sits a young gay cou­ple from Belarus, who he knows from around”. Behind us, sits dancer MJ Harp­er, who Ren­nt has pho­tographed in the past. I’m more inter­est­ed when peo­ple are in vul­ner­a­ble states,” he says of the trust­ing rela­tion­ship he builds with his sub­jects – often friends and loved ones, not dis­sim­i­lar to Nan Goldin’s style. You can’t feel lib­er­at­ed with some­one you don’t know – and that doesn’t make for a very good pic­ture,” he says. When I ask him what does make a good pic­ture, he paus­es for a moment. I believe in find­ing beau­ty in the most com­mon places,” he says.

See more of Syrops Rennt’s pho­tographs at When Doves Cry, a two-per­son exhi­bi­tion curat­ed by Berlin art insti­tu­tion Schinkel Pavil­lon for their Dis­ap­pear­ing Berlin series

00:00 / 00:00