Photographing Germany

A trip to Europe, specifically to Germany, is something that had been on my list for quite some time. As a photographer, the mix of old-world charm and modern architecture of Germany’s cities is undeniably unique and affords an endless amount of photographic opportunities. Personally, it also gave me a chance to reconnect with my German ancestry, possibly even do a little research on the branches of my family tree and explore my heritage. In a relatively short six-day trip, I did a bit of everything – and I could not have had a more rewarding experience.

After a (thankfully) uneventful flight, I found myself in Hamburg on an uncharacteristically warm afternoon in late February. I dropped my bags in my hotel, grabbed my camera and headed out. Side note, the Renaissance Hamburg Hotel Grosse Bleichen was outstanding. Super friendly staff, incredible food and a perfect ground-zero location to see the city. I rented a Donkey Bike to help me get around more quickly – less than $25 USD for two days, which I thought was an outstanding deal. My first stop was the famed Speicherstadt. It was constructed in 1883, five years before Hamburg received its free port, and now stands as the largest warehouse district in the world. The buildings lining Hamburg’s picturesque canals are constructed on oak piles and, when the tide is in, they form a perfect backdrop for a variety of boats traversing through the streets. I spent the majority of the two days I had here exploring in and around this area for no other reason other than it is awesome. You’ll be walking down an alley, around a corner and catch a few-hundred-year-old church, a picturesque iron bridge spanning a canal, beautiful light reflecting off the water, locals out grabbing a beer with friends, an incredible restaurant tucked into an unassuming corner and pretty much anything else you could want out of a beautiful German city.

My favorite place to photograph was Wasserschloss, a four-story landmark building occupying one of the best pieces of land in Hamburg – between two bridges in the middle of a canal. It originally served as a shelter and workshop for dock workers but is now home to a restaurant/bar and other businesses.

Spanning out from this location for probably a mile radius is worth checking out on foot or bike. Other landmarks of note included Chilehaus and Elbphilharmonie, an impressive glass and brick structure built right on the water.

I was able to pull myself away from Speicherstadt long enough to take a tour of the Ballinstadt Emigration Museum – and I’m definitely glad I did. I had no idea that in the 19th and 20th centuries, Hamburg was known as the “Gateway to the World,” with about 5 million European emigrants venturing off to the New World in pursuit of a better life.

The museum itself is tended by an incredibly friendly and helpful staff who guide you through several buildings, each with its own theme. More than anything, the museum gives you a realistic glimpse into the voyages taken by these emigrants and how they found the New World when they arrived. I was able to use the computer there to do a little research through my own family tree, locate the names of my great grandparents, and trace their history back to the old country. It was really meaningful to see their names and imagine their journeys from Germany so long ago. It’s difficult to put into words the feeling you get when you realize that you are a living extension of that journey nearly 100 years later. I was really happy to have made the trip here and reconnect with my German roots a bit.

My stay in Hamburg was incredible, but I was eager to get to Dessau to explore the birthplace of the Bauhaus architecture. After a two-hour train ride via Berlin and the German countryside, I arrived. First impressions were a much more low-key vibe than Hamburg, as the city itself is home to just over 82,000 people. One of the landmarks on my list was just around the corner from my hotel, and I wasted little time checking it out. The Umweltbundesamt is the German Environment Agency, a snaking orange façade of glass and wood that I couldn’t help but take about 100 photos of. It’s definitely worth a stop if you’re interested in architecture and design.

Speaking of which, the next morning began with a tour of the Bauhaus Building and campus, a German art school founded by Walter Gropius in 1919. Unfortunately, the building itself was under construction, as were nearly all the landmarks in the area, in preparation for the bulk of the tourism season starting in April. The good news is, the city now has a fully restored face to greet the public this spring. There are some truly impressive structures and history here, and the local tourism office would be a great first stop to line up a tour.

I’d been suffering from a pretty bad cold I’d picked up on my last night in Hamburg but was happy to wake up on the other side of it the following morning and get a fresh start on the last leg of my journey: Berlin. My hotel was a short cab or train ride from the center of the city. If you plan on staying there, I’d suggest anywhere near the Bode Museum, which was my first stop to shoot blue hour. I ducked inside for a cup of coffee and had a look around before shooting it from across the canal. The structure itself is expansive on the inside, with a beautiful dome stretching across the entryway. They serve a damn good cup of coffee upstairs as well.

After doing some long exposure photography shots of the museum as the sun set, I walked around a bit to check out the area. Moving southeast along the Spree River, I came across an incredible view of what’s called “Museum Island” and the back side of Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral Church. It’s an awesome view and made for a few great shots. I moved in about a quarter-mile closer and found the Altes Museum, which lit up at night, is insanely cool.

From here I was finally able to get a head-on view of the Cathedral, which was really ornate and interesting. Its history dates back to the 15th century, but the building assumed its current form in the late 1800s. With the lights on at night, it looked incredible and I stopped for more time than I’d care to admit to photograph it.

I was freezing by this point (the weather in Berlin wasn’t nearly as cooperative as it had been in Hamburg and Dessau), but I had one more place on my list – Gendarmenmarkt. First built in 1688, it is now a square that plays home to the Berlin Concert Hall and French and German churches on opposite sides. The architecture of all the buildings was impressive.

Living in the states, we’re just not used to seeing buildings of that age and style anywhere. I saw too many to count in all three cities, but their charm wasn’t ever lost on me. I did a few long exposure shots there with the backdrop of a lone violinist street performer before heading off to an immensely satisfying steak dinner. There are several bars and restaurants just down the street, and you’d do well to duck into just about any of them for a beer or something to eat.

The next day I traveled to several landmarks to shoot a bit more. Unfortunately, it was another flat grey day, so I did most of my shooting at night and blue hour. I was able to take in the cathedral a second time from a different angle and elevation, along with the iconic Berliner Fernsehturm. It’s a massive needle-like structure finished in the late ‘60s, and its design definitely plays the part.

Last stop was Oberbaumbrucke, a beautiful bridge with twin spires spanning the Spree River. A train passing on top of the bridge and some boat traffic underneath made for some really great shots, and I was more than satisfied to put my camera away for the night after shooting it.

I made one more pre-dawn effort the following morning to get a few shots of the Brandenburg Gate. I was hoping for some sunlight to come streaming through its pillars, but Berlin was determined to hold fast on the cloud cover. That aside, the structure itself was very cool. It sits at the end of a long solitary road facing the Victory Tower, a monument designed in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory over the Danes. I found both of these a little too fun to shoot and nearly missed my flight back to Chicago – but definitely well worth it.

Overall, I found Germany to be an incredible country. It was meaningful being able to research my family’s history and connect with my heritage. And between Hamburg, Dessau and Berlin I saw countless feats of architecture and design, met a ton of friendly, cool and interesting people and ate as well as I could have hoped. That being said, there are so many places I didn’t get to explore, namely the majestic countryside and a handful of castles I’ve been dying to shoot for quite some time. I guess I’ll just have to come back soon. Very soon.

Written by Michael Meyers

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