Magazine Article


A Different photokina

ruin in a WWII photo
A passerby with cellphone points at a ruin in a WWII photo, hanging in the new Koelnmesse.The message of the iconic images may be changing with the generations.
Don Sutherland

Köln Messe
The Köln Messe where photokina was born is no more, but its shell will remain as a reminder. What else of photokina will join the relics of Cologne?
Don Sutherland

old Köln Messe
The walls of the old Köln Messe form a composite with the cathedral steeples, more than a half-mile away. In a sense, they’re all equally ancient.
Don Sutherland

Panasonic DSLR
Like Sony, Panasonic treated their DSLR like "new," despite its announcement last February. Projecting a 10% market share within a few years, Panasonic’s message seemed to echo Sony’s: Forget the technicalities—we’re here, and we mean it.
Don Sutherland

Sony Alpha DSLR
At their heavily-attended press conference, Sony treated their Alpha DSLR almost like a new introduction, despite its half-year of existence. What were they trying to tell us?
Don Sutherland

The title above should probably read, “a differerent different photokina,” because as trade shows go, photokina has always been different. For starters, its organizers call it a trade fair. The show or fair this time was different as always, but also, it was different from always.

Now, when we say “different,” we mean unlike the tradeshows we in this trade normally attend. That includes the PMA show, and the CE show as well, every year. In their broad essentials, these American shows are much alike. So if we see “different,” we know it.

Part of the difference of photokina is, of course, the fact that it’s not an American show. It’s held in Cologne, Germany. And that’s a big difference.

It’s probably difficult to spend time in Cologne, and feel unaffected by it. Upland from the Rhine, which separates the left and right banks of the city, one finds all the trappings of a modern, progressive European metropolis. Mass transit is quite highly developed and user-friendly, particularly the extensive light-rail system (the tram) that runs out of the central hub in many directions. Taxi cabs are always new, clean, sparkling, usually Mercedes, equipped with talking GPS systems to aid navigation, and drivers who generally speak better English than their counterparts in New York.

Historical Panorama

But down toward the cultural center of the city, where the Cathedral has stood for 758 years, there is a profound sense of history. It has a transporting effect, not to any one time in particular, but into the flow of human affairs for five thousand years.

The long-established Celts were kicked-out of the Rhine region by the Teutons in 300 B.C., and it was in 50 A.D. that the Roman emperor Claudius chartered the city of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. Colonia is still an accepted name for what we call Cologne, as is Köln, Koeln, and Coln (and Collen, a long time ago).

The Vikings plundered the city in 881, but the town recovered and by 1100 had a bustling population of 40,000. During the middle ages, the city was an influential member of the Hanseatic League. It started getting into the business of fairs in the 1300s. After centuries of independence, Cologne was occupied by French troops in 1794, and became a part of France for awhile. Somewhere along the line, a manufacturer of fragrances adopted the brand name of 4711, giving the word Cologne a whole second meaning.

From the perspective of 2006, all these varied and disparate events weave themselves into a common historical tapestry. Maybe the visitor can’t know exactly who passed whom on that stretch of 2000-year-old Roman highway nearby the Cathedral. But you can feel their collective mantle.

You’re given plenty of reminders, for no one is more conscious of Cologne’s history than the people who come from there. Close to the Cathedral is the Roman Museum, with its sculptures and shards and bits and pieces of local Roman life. Throughout the altstadt (“old city”), excavations covered with glass exhibit the remains of structures built a millenium ago.

As much as the Cathedral is the city’s icon, its symbol and trademark, another fact of Kolsch history has also gained status as a city symbol. This is the bombing by the allies in World War II. By the time they were done, 90% of the city center was rubble.

Here and there, store windows present large photos of some street—possibly the one they occupy now—pounded into mounds of bricks and stones. At souvenir stands, picture postcards with black borders are sold in racks, with dozens of views of the city in ruin. Cologne’s devastation has joined its icons.

The message these photos send, their intended comment, is never explicitly stated. Could it be, “look at the terrible thing that was done to us?” Could it be “look at how we rebuilt our town brick by brick?” In the new entrance of the updated Koelnmesse, where photokina is staged, a half-dozen enlargements of these photos hang in the corridor and might issue yet another message.

Köln Messe Becomes Koelnmesse

When we first covered photokina twenty years ago, we were intrigued by the thought of nearly total destruction and recovery from the ashes. If people are products of environment, we wondered what this environment would produce? What was it like, having this theme of destruction and rebirth as a cultural legacy?

As a piece of oneself? Wanting to know, we asked. Most of the people we asked said they didn’t understand the question.

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