Friends Sixteen Times Removed and a Camel on a World Tour

A Visit to the Photographer and Architect Birgit Glatzel

Birgit Glatzel with her Rolleiflex camera on her balcony

Birgit Glatzel with her Rolleiflex camera; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Mariette Franz

It’s a warm summer’s day when I visit Birgit Glatzel in Prenzlauer Berg, the same kind of day it must have been when she shot her photograph “Angela and Me,” which, like her short film “Going to Jerusalem,” has been available in our art vending machine since April (more information on our website).

“Angela and Me” is part of a series in which the artist portrays herself with a friend in self-timed pictures. All the photographs are taken with a 1937 Rolleiflex camera, and the location and backdrop are always chosen together with the friend in question. Birgit embarked upon the project shortly before her emigration to Israel in 2007 – she wanted to take photos to remember her friends in Germany. “Memories play an important role in Judaism, for example an original piece is always left in a newly refurbished apartment,” explained the artist, who trained as an architect and works as such to earn her living.

Before I talk to Birgit about her art, she shows me the studio where she works and has lived with her son since her return to Berlin. I love the sliding walls that can hide the bathroom of the large studio apartment. Then Birgit tells me that “Angela and Me” shows her with her friend Angela, whose birthday they were celebrating at the Müggelsee in the summer of 2014. However, only the legs of the two women standing on a swing are shown, and upon closer inspection, a man in the background looking directly into the camera.

Black and white photograph of two women standing on a swing

Birgit Naomi Glatzel, “Angela and Me”, photo project “You and Me”; Jewish Museum Berlin

“Does it bother you that somebody just walked into your picture?” I ask Birgit. No, he is part of the picture because he shows the elements of chance and of surprise that can result from the self-timer delay. “I knew the moment the photo was taken that it would turn out like this.” “And how do you feel about your private souvenir photo hanging in other people’s homes?” “I love this uncontrollable dispersal of my art. And since our faces are not visible, it is anonymous enough as well.” There is already a waiting list for the photo series – other friends want to be part of the project.

Birgit Glatzel also enjoys working with a partner on other projects because it inspires the best ideas. That was how it was with the art film “Going to Jerusalem” that she made with the animation filmmaker Benjamin Seide. It evolved ten years ago as a contribution for an exhibition in Jerusalem on the theme of “Land(e)scaping.” Benjamin and Birgit wanted to address the complex, five-thousand-year history of Jerusalem in an entertaining way, without ridiculing it. The idea was sparked by a snow globe containing the Jerusalem skyline and a camel that Birgit had been given by a friend, Hagar from Israel – the two of them decided to “liberate” the city skyline from its ball and send it on a world tour accompanied by the camel. So they destroyed the snowball and used both as “leading actors” for her film. Filming locations included the icebox of Birgit’s fridge and the playground opposite her apartment. “Oddly enough, no one in Israel laughed at the film although it is so absurd – for example you see the camel hanging in a cable car over the Alps,” wonders Birgit. “Your colleague Gelia Eisert was the first to find the film funny.” “I also had a good laugh,” I can reassure Birgit.

Card with a camel in a cable car and a USB stick

Birgit Naomi Glatzel and Benjamin Seide, “Going to Jerusalem”; Jewish Museum Berlin, photo: Jens Ziehe

Since there was only one more public showing of the film in Jerusalem after the exhibition, Birgit has ensured its survival by putting it on a USB stick for our art vending machine. The stick is stuck on a postcard showing the camel in the cable car and the card is lovingly hand-stamped with camel heads designed by Benjamin Seide and Birgit Glatzel. “Working with Benjamin was great fun,” laughs Birgit. “It was a charming and very special collaboration during the film production and, many years later, designing the card. Unfortunately, this was our only joint project so far.”

Still of particular importance to Birgit Glatzel is her first major long-term project, which again unites the two motifs from the other works of art – friendship and travel. This was the first project she used the Rolleiflex for – her camera for special occasions, as one photo costs about 2 euros, so you think twice before pressing the shutter. For “A Friend is a Friend of a Friend,” Birgit sent herself off traveling for four years and visited first friends around the world, then friends of those friends and so on – a total of 340 people, some of whom were friends 16 times removed. “I wanted to show that it’s possible to do it differently and that the Internet does not replace personal experience.”

Benjamin Seide signing the cards in Birgits apartment

Benjamin Seide signing the cards in Birgits apartment; photo: Birgit Glatzel

Birgit Glatzel took a picture with her Rolleiflex of all the friends and friends of friends she met and with whom she sometimes stayed. The camera was always a good place to start at a first meeting with what were mostly strangers – “It is is an element that we all know and at the same time you can take photos inconspicuously with it, so it is not so intimidating.” The Rolleiflex was a chance discovery –  “I had always wanted a camera like that and came across it when I was looking for a flash for a different camera. The photo project led to an exhibition and many years later to a book that Birgit Glatzel financed through a several-month crowdfunding campaign. It shows very many very different people from all around the world in their private environments. The appendix has a list of everyone depicted, listed by place of residence, occupation, or “friendship clan,” to quote Birgit.

Birgit invites me to look through the Rolleiflex at the end. “You see everything back to front,” says Birgit “but I don’t even notice that anymore.” She also gives me a signed copy of A Friend is of a Friend of a Friend, number 184 of 300, as a reminder of our afternoon together at her studio, which has flown by. The book now has its place on my desk and reminds me that you should send yourself off traveling more often or visit friends or people who you don’t know (yet).

Mariette Franz recently went on Birgit’s trail, but first just to the Müggelsee.

More information about Birgit Glatzel on her website

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