As a nineteen-year-old budding photographer, Esther Friedman moved from Mannheim to West Berlin in 1974. Two years later she met the legendary Iggy Pop, fell in love, and began to document their life together. The photographs are a relic of an era in which the isolated island of West Berlin stood as strange and fertile interzone for musicians such as Pop and David Bowie. Unearthing the images in 2013, Friedman published the works in her book The Passenger. On the occasion of her current show “No Idiot 2,” Friedman spoke with 032c’s Eva Kelley about her work and the surreal quotidian of living in 1970s West Berlin:
Eva Kelley: We have the impression today that the Berlin of the late 1970s was extremely open and accepting. Yet one of the pictures that struck me in your exhibition shows Iggy Pop casually standing on the street while a couple walks behind him. The woman seems shocked at the sight of Iggy. What was that dynamic in the city really like? Did you guys stand out?
Esther Friedman: I think in that moment we did stand out. But maybe just because I had a camera and I was photographing this guy in a leather jacket. I think that made them curious. At the time we could go anywhere, because Iggy (Pop) wasn’t that famous. Only insiders knew him, because he was formally with the Stooges. I had never even heard of him, when I met him. Even David (Bowie), who was very famous by then, could run or bike around Berlin untroubled. If people recognized him, they didn’t stalk him or bother him.
People often describe West Berlin as an island. Not just as an island in Germany but globally speaking. Celebrities felt anonymous in West Berlin for some reason. Why do you think it was like that?
I don’t think that they had had that much confrontation with people from other countries, or different backgrounds, or with artists in general. West Berlin was open to a certain extent, but also very naïve and young. There was a lot of misery, you know. The wall was a terrible thing. There was just not much to offer here. And everything was subsidized. Berlin was one huge subsidy. You had a lot of draft-dodgers here and it was cheap. I had a huge loft for very little money on Dresdener Straße in Kreuzberg, before I moved away. I lived in a lot of different places in Berlin, but the most expensive part of town was Charlottenburg. That was like, really pricy. But in Kreuzberg and Schöneberg, you could get really huge flats compared to other places in the world. When I was living here in the 70s, there was a very creative crowd here. People like Wim Wenders and Kippenberger. They were all kind of starting out, getting their wings. And we all went to the same places. There were the three restaurants that everyone loved to go to: “Paris Bar,” “Exil,” “Einstein.” There wasn’t that much choice. You’d run into people all the time, whereas today everybody is dispersed. The town became huge since it opened.
What was your experience with East Berlin? Did you guys visit it often?
I never realized back then that we were living on the shittier side. We always thought we had the better side. Once the city opened, you realized how vast the East was. We never really got it. You didn’t really, unless you had family or a reason, go further than East Berlin. We never thought of it. And you had to get a visa and a permit and everything. Depending on your passport, everyone had a different way to get in. I had to go through Checkpoint Charlie. David had a British passport, so he had to go through the British sector. Germans went through Friedrichstraße. Then we’d all meet on the other side. We’d say: “We’ll meet at the TV Tower.” The U-Bahn, also the S-Bahn, they went through the East. So, you would be sitting in the subway and all of a sudden everything would be dark and barricaded because you were driving through East Berlin. It was crazy. Then everything lit up again and you’d think: “My God, if the train gets stuck here. What’s going to happen? We’re going to be stuck in no-man’s-land.” It was surreal. To be in this confined island with Russia and Poland on one side and then West Germany on the other. It was awesome.
Why did West Berlin work so well for all of you?
Berlin had this kind of flair and I think that’s one of the reasons why Iggy and David were drawn to the city. Also, I think they wanted to come here because they read a lot of Christopher Isherwood.
So they were inspired to create their own Berlin diaries.
Berlin was basically New York and still, despite everything, it was so Europe. They were very creative here. It was a real outburst that they had here. It just didn’t stop. They weren’t here for a very long time, but the reason why it still stays with everyone, even today, is because they just did good work here. You can do good work anywhere. Though I’m sure that Berlin was also part of the input. I mean, The Idiot is very Berlin and so is Low.
You’ve described yourself and Iggy as “restless” when you were together. In what sense? And was Berlin a trigger for your restlessness?
Curious is a better word. We were always kind of curious to see what was around the corner. Going a step further. That’s the thing about Jim, Iggy, I think he always knew how to go that step further. And David too. Not just accepting the corner, but going around the corner and discovering new things. For example, our apartment in the “Hauptstraße” was Jim’s first. When I met him, he was living with David. Then he got his own place and he was so proud. That was very important to him. He was an American from Ypsilanti, Michigan. He wasn’t exactly a sophisticated European. It makes a difference, if you grow up in the Midwest, or if you grow up in New York, or London. The whole travel thing was a huge experience for him.
You and Iggy traveled a lot together, right? I read that the two of you went to Haiti and Kenya and you lived in different cities together. Where do you think you were happiest?
Berlin would be number one actually, because we met here and everything was fresh and new and I was able to help Jim and David a lot, because I spoke German and I could kind of show them things. It was fun to show them things. Little things, that they wouldn’t have found on their own.
Well, museums. We went to the “Brücke Museum” a lot. David loved museums. And we went through the city with the trains, Jim and I. David had a car at his disposal if he wanted it. But Jim and I took the train. We would make a little route every day.
You sound like you were a very active couple. Not one of those couples, that hangs out at home most of the time. Like, you went out and did stuff.
When we would hang out at home there was a law that there were no visitors allowed, unless David and Iggy specifically said it was ok. They were careful like that and they had reason to be. I was more open. I’d say, “Hey, come over!” and Jim would say, “No, no, no.” So we were very isolated in a way at home, but I learned to live with it.
Let’s come back to your work. These photographs are obviously from a very important time in your life. Are you overwhelmed with nostalgia and memories when you see them? Or do you feel far-removed, like looking at a different version of yourself?
Half and half. I first re-found the images in 2013. Someone came from ZEIT magazine and everything was in a big laundry basket. I never realized that anyone would even be interested. Christoph Amend came, he did an interview with me and said, “My God, this is a treasure!” Then a few publishers came around and we started on the book The Passenger. To see all that stuff again, was kind of weird. When people get stuck in a time warp, it’s the worst. There is nothing worse than an ex-girlfriend going on and on about “the days I was with…” So I was like, I don’t want to do a tell-all book because there’s nothing to tell. If someone wants to do a book with pictures, fine. But it’s not going to be one of those Angie/Bowie backstage, trashy things, you know. It was going to be about the photos. When I look at them now, I’m proud that we did them. I wish I would’ve taken more and there are things I regret. I would’ve liked to have more photos of David, but at the time it wasn’t possible. I wouldn’t have dared to take the camera out when he was around. It was such a no-go, you know, “Oh, can I put the camera in your face?” I was shy, I didn’t ask and then I didn’t want to get Iggy jealous. I couldn’t tell him I wanted to photograph David as well.
That’s kind of cute.
Yeah, I thought, “Just keep the camera in your bag. It’s not worth it, the effort, the hassle.” The Bowie photos that are in the show, I found after the book was published. I keep finding things. It was funny, because David’s assistant, Coco Schwab, said, “Too bad you don’t have any photos of David.” David was a little sad, because he wasn’t in the book. I said to Coco: “You were the bitch from hell! If someone just took a camera out, you took a deep breath and…”
What was it like for you going through all these old photographs?
It was therapeutic for me. Just realizing this was something people are actually interested in seeing, which I never thought. That was my big surprise. That people would enjoy seeing the photos. Not just the ones with Jim and David, but also Berlin, the city. Always grey, the sun never shone. I mean, there was literally not one sunny day. And then, for example the Reichstag, you could go there and there was nobody. I took these selfies in 1975 with myself at 5 o´clock in the morning when nobody was there. And the bus held and nobody got on or off. It was like, why is this bus stopping? The bus would stop, wait two seconds, drive off again. There was nothing going on. You could just run around. It was a beautiful place.
So, the title of the exhibition…
Oh yes, that was a play on The Idiot of course.
He recorded it while you were seeing each other, right?
Yes, that was when we met. The first time I used the “No Idiot” phrase, was when I made a brochure with the “Berliner Festspiele.” You know, they do those little editions that are numbered from one through whatever. I did the number 12 with them. David Lynch did number 11. This was two years ago. And they asked me what I wanted to call the edition. So my friend Michael Neff, who created the Gallery Weekend here in Berlin, he said, “Call it ‘No Idiot’.” Just a fluke. They want you to give it a title, so I thought, ok, that’s a title.
While I was visiting the exhibition, I thought it was interesting to see the contrast between the rockstar Iggy Pop and the person, your boyfriend, Jim. In some images the way he’s looking at you is so loving and sweet and then in others, it’s not like emotionless, but it’s very “cool-guy.”
Well, there’s the Iggy and there’s the Jim. It’s always been like that. I never liked Iggy much. I liked Jim. Iggy is the stage and Jim is home. You know, cosy, watching TV, doing this and that. I think that when you’re on stage or when you’re a public person, the only way to survive is to have two personas. David and Jim both did that. There’s Ziggy Stardust and there’s Iggy Pop. That’s something they made up. David had a lot more of these personas. Jim stuck with Iggy. David changed them up. With David it was because he was such a shy person. At some point, he dropped them. I think he felt comfortable enough to just be himself.
Do you think there’s more of Iggy or more of Jim in your pictures?
I think there’s more Jim. I have a lot of stage shots, because I was their tour photographer. I purposefully only have very few stage shots in the exhibition, because that’s a whole different thing. I tried to keep it personal.
Do you know what’s going on with Iggy at the moment?
I know he’s got a new album coming out in March. I think it’s supposed to be a post Lust for Life album, so it should be interesting. I’ve heard a few songs and it sounds really good. Also, I just found out that his son has been living in Berlin for the last two years, which is completely surreal. I didn’t even know. I’m supposed to meet him this afternoon. Isn’t that amazing? Following his father’s footsteps. It’s incredible, right? I haven’t seen him, since he was a little kid. He met a German girl from Berlin.
Seems like history is repeating itself.
It just proves that Berlin hasn’t lost it. It’s just different. I guess for kids today it’s probably just as fabulous as it was for us. Why wouldn’t it be? I mean, they have it all. They don’t have the wall. They’ve got freedom. They can go back and forth. We couldn’t.
The exhibition “No Idiot 2” will be on display at Hubertushoehe Art + Architecture in Berlin until March 12, 2016.