Sunday, May 4, 2008

Cafe Lehmitz by Anders Petersen

In 1968 Anders Petersen walked into Café Lehmitz for a beer. As he tells it, he sat down, placed his camera on the table, and shortly there after is engaged in conversation with another young man in the bar. After a quick trip to the men's room, he returned to find the patrons in the bar using his camera to take pictures of each other. Seeing this, it was only natural for him to seize the opportunity to ask if he could photograph them as well.

The Cafe Lehmitz sat at the end of "die sündige Meile" ("the sinful mile"), the red light district in Hamburg. Its patrons were a mix of workers, prostitutes, johns, pimps, alcoholics, homosexuals, transvestites and others who sat on the fringes of society and it was within this cast of characters that Anders Petersen made the 88 black-and-white photographs that makes up his classic book Cafe Lehmitz published by Schirmer Mosel in 1978.

Off and on for two years Petersen frequented the bar and made photographs of this "other" society but his approach reads not as a voyeuristic exposé from an outsider but of a loving collaborative diary of sorts that shows genuine affection. This band of misfits formed a new family and the café a new home. One remarkable aspect of the book is the sense of connection and acceptance between the subjects. World-weary and worn down by life, it seems that these desperate and down on their luck people had found a small refuge from judgment within the four walls of the Café and they reveled in that fact. These are the sorts that in the conventional world would be seen as failures and perhaps even pitiable -- more likely looked upon with disgust, but none of that is found in these photographs. Pity is not found in Café Lehmitz because all are accepted and even the oldest and the homeliest of prostitutes gets smothered with kisses.

I do not own the original edition of Café Lehmitz but I would like to draw your attention to three other books that contain this material. The first is what I believe to be a near facsimile hardcover edition that was published in 2004 by Schirmer Mosel. Near facsimile because the original Café Lehmitz was published only in paperback and this edition has a clear redesign of the front cover.

This edition opens with the text by Roger Anderson which describes not only the back story of Petersen's involvement with the Café but also a return to Café Lehmitz eight years after to see what still remained. The printing is well done and the reproductions are probably a bit richer than in the original.

I like the edition described above a lot but my favorite is actually an odd little pocket paperback version that was published in 1985 by Fischer Taschenbucher. This contains the same 88 photographs in the same sequence as well is the same text by Anderson but the trim size is 7.5 x 5 inches -- the same size as most pocket novels. The reproductions are rough as the paper is cheap and they are reproduced at a very small size on the page due to the format. The quality is cheap, but there is something charming about this photo book that poses as a novel. I can imagine the patrons of the Café having a tattered and dog-eared copy of this sitting amongst the pint glasses and overfilled ashtrays more so than any other.

This past year also saw a very small book published on this work this time coming from Japan and the Rat Hole Gallery. This incarnation is an elegant presentation of 25 photographs that I believe served as a companion to an exhibition. At 8.25 x 6 inches and covered in a burgundy material pocked to look like faux leather with the title and author is embossed in a white art deco font it sort of resembles a miniature menu. This book is more of a teaser than anything else although mixed within many of the iconic images there are a few that are not in the original editions and at least one is a variant (the dwarf posing with a crowd of men). The printing is well-done and rich and although I like the idea of the design (a small book with the images bled to the page edge) all of the horizontal images run across the gutter and in many cases they get ruined.

In an introduction to a book of drawings and watercolors by George Grosz (to which Anders Petersen could be compared), Henry Miller states, '" People are wonderful as they are." All people? Every last one? It seems hard to swallow. Only saints talk that way, you will say. Yet, unless we learn to see ourselves as others see us the wound will never heal and we shall remain forever separate and apart.' It is hard to imagine, least of all for Anders Petersen, that when he stepped off the Reeperbahn and into Café Lehmitz for a beer that he would encounter, let alone document, something saintly in that dingy bar filled with sinners. Then again only saints truly feel comfortable when surrounded by the sweat, vomit and tears of others.

Buy online at Schirmer Mosel