Brian Griffin’s Himmelstrasse series documents the railway tracks across Poland that once transported prisoners from around Europe to the Nazi German extermination camps during WWII.
Griffin’s original focus began on the Sobibór gas chambers and the railways found in the surrounding locations, which expanded to include Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters at the Wolf’s Lair, to the State Rail System leading to the camps of Belzec, Chelmno, Stutthof and Treblinka, along with Sobibór.
“During WWII these were railway lines that conveyed passengers that had paid for a one way ticket. All the images were taken from my head height as I stood between the rails looking out into the far distance,” photographer Griffen explains. “Page after page you have railway lines going off into infinity, with the occasional one going around a bend.”
The series came about after Griffin’s visit to the area last year, when a retrospective of his music photography was being exhibited at the Fotofestival in Lodz. “Whilst travelling by train from Lodz to Warsaw I was fascinated by the railway tracks that had been constructed through the forests of Poland,” he says. “Mentioning this to my dear friend Anne Braybon who had commissioned me to work on the London Olympics 2012 for the National Portrait Gallery, she said ‘Oh the same railway tracks that supplied the prisoners to the Death Camps’. That was it, I felt totally inspired and had a concept.”
The series was shot on a Mamiya 7 film camera for the black-and-white images and then a Canon 5D Mark 2 for the colour. “My kit was constructed to fulfill this type of project where I needed portability in order to walk miles,” Griffin explains.
“Each day I would be out shooting from 5.30am, driving hours and walking miles up these railway tracks,” he continues. “I was there a number of weeks throughout the winter of 2015. It was quite harsh as essentially the work involved the far east and north east of Poland.”
The book’s title, Himmelstrasse, translates as ‘Heaven Street’, and comes from a cruel Nazi joke, originally used to describe the final journey to the gas chambers. In particular, as Griffin describes, “the name is derived from the signage above the outdoor corridor that ferried the prisoners down to the gas chamber at the death camp Treblinka in Eastern Poland,” he says.
The relentlessness of the images, with the often desolate landscapes, evokes a quiet remembrance. “The book is totally conceptual. If it was a musical piece it would be regarded as a Mantra,” Griffin says. “The continual image repetition delivers you into a meditative state.”
The symmetry and the mix of colour and black-and-white imagery give the sequence an uneasy feel – they are almost film-like, and unreal. Some scenes have become overgrown, the physical spaces forgotten; others have modern details that are jarring – a sofa facing the track or a hazard sign.
But with the very real association one has when looking at the work, each image becomes a solitary monument to the horror that the prisoners faced ahead – each stand-alone photograph captures a strange calm and a stillness, and the cumulative effect almost has a flicker-book aesthetic, as stark reminder of the journey itself.
The book of the work – of the same name – was approached by Browns conceptually rather than from an archival or historical point of view, and the title was largely what contributed to its design, fuelling the aesthetic, with the thick cover in bright red and white and bold, brutal Blackletter typeface.
“Unflinching, bright, insensitive and fetishistic Nazi red is used alongside authentic Nazi typefaces,” explains Jonathan Ellery of Browns. “This is the horrible reality and truth that we wanted to bring to the piece. It’s bludgeoning rather than sensitive and is deliberately frictional with the photography.”
“There is a dark psychology to this book that both myself and Brian are fascinated with,” he continues. “It’s very bureaucratic, box like and claustrophobic in form, which is perfect for Brian’s relentless, horrific, yet beautiful images.”
Himmelstrasse by Brian Griffin is available for £50 from brownseditions.com