Photobook Review: The Lost Border

This is the first of two reviews that follow along a similar path. Brian Rose’s The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain is a simply elegant book which visually charts that famous geopolitical fault line which existed in one form or another from 1946 until 1989. 

Rose chronicles the Inner German Border (innerdeutsche Grenze or simply die Grenze) and eastern borders of Austria and Italy in colour with his 4x5 view camera in a series of photographs captured between 1985 and 1989. Travelling multiple times between New York and Frankfurt, Rose hired a VW van and drove the length of the border, taking photographs as he went. 

The resulting images of the stark geopolitical reality would have been unexceptional in the 1980s. In a way, these are images that could have been captured by anyone, but only Rose had the tenacity and sufficient presence of place to do so. The borders, of course, no longer exists as they do in this collection. The few instances where border fortifications remain along the Inner German Border, they do so as a sort of Disneyfied theme park historical attraction. The potency and dread of a border defended regularly with lethal force is somewhat diminished by tourists standing around and gawking at the remnants of a possible flashpoint of World War III.

It is refreshing to view images of the various national borders. All too often discussion of the Cold War focuses on the Berlin Wall, forgetting the borders of death which divided half of Europe. Sadly it’s easy to forget the harrowing tales of escape and tragedy along these long borders. 

Although the barbed wire, concrete towers and death strips seemed a permanent feature of the eastern European frontier, Rose notes that even in 1985 they seemed crumbling and unwieldy. The top-heavy concrete guard towers (look at the one on the cover) expressive of a still potent regime on the brink of collapse. Rose’s images are landscapes first and foremost and they are extremely well crafted. His use of colour helps create a sense of reality, documentary and immediacy that would be sorely missed in monochrome; his 4x5 negatives would be a sight to behold. 

Less than five years after Rose started this project, the political divisions of Germany would be formally ended with the physical ones crumbling away shortly thereafter. Europe would charge headlong into an ill-advised political and economic union that essentially amounted to a Bundesrepublik takeover of the entire continent - what they couldn’t achieve through warfare, they achieved economically. Meanwhile, ethnic tensions began to boil over in the Balkans…

Rose’s images of a frontier long-gone act as a memento mori; motivation to go out and capture the world that exists now before it is changed forever. All it takes is a VW van, a camera, a vision and some balls.


The Lost Border: The Landscape of the Iron Curtain
Brian Rose

Published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2004

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