Photoessay: Germany, on the move

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Today’s photoessay comes from a much earlier trip in the year to Zeiss HQ in Germany; I had a lot of connections and a lot of transit time. The camera naturally falls to hand and one starts observing and recording. Having personally spent a lot of time in transit in a large number of countries around the world, I always find it remarkable how developed countries are quite similar – but somehow little things make a difference in implementation and efficiency of the overall system. Whilst German public transport lacks the brutal efficiency of the Swiss, it also lacks the unpredictability of the French and Italians, so I suppose that’s reason not to complain…MT

This series was shot with a Leica Q, Sony A7RII and Zeiss 1.8/55 FE and 1.8/85 Batis lenses. You can learn the underlying postprocessing in the Weekly Photoshop Workflow series.

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Ultraprints from this series are available on request here


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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Ming, I’m usually a big fan of your images, but the the photos above feel like they were taken a long ago and do not really reflect “Germany, on the go”. But maybe I’m just too sensitive because I live in, know and like Germany.

    I’ve read the comments above, and I understand your time and space constraints, so maybe just the subject line is a bit misleading…

  2. It’s not places but people that have souls.

  3. The pictures and the comments are both a bit unfair to what I call my country. Quite frankly, we should not compare the beaches and city scenes from somewhere with the backyards, the busstations and workshops from another country. That’s why I call this unfair. I have travelled Europe France – more than 20 yrs a binational family), UK (I have been living several yrs over there and am there on business travel every other month), Italy, Scandinavia and I have seen both beautiful places and ugly spots everywhere.

    And, Ming, when you come to Europe (because I feel more as a European than as a German), I could give you a long list of beautiful spaces, all around Germany, or all over Europe. Not only the well known touristic places (Heidelberg, Octoberfest, Eiffeltower, la Corniche, but also in unknown places like Lower Saxony or Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. In mid July, I took a picture in the summer sun, that looks like a picture by Monet.

    I feel the photos in this portfolio are not really relevant to understanding Germany or even Europe.

    Forgive me my critics this time, and, please accept my very best wishes for you, your small family and for your professional success – the same for all our fellow readers.

    Sincerely, Werner

    • Hello Werner, fair comments. However, I shoot the same way in other cities, too – whatever urban environments I encounter; transport hubs, modernist architecture. I don’t shoot much on beaches because there’s no point. You’ll find plenty of other images from airports and train stations from elsewhere around the world here too. Furthermore, when you’ve only got half a day free between engagements, and no time to travel anywhere, you make the most of it…don’t get me wrong: there’s no dislike for Germany here. Far from it, if the origin of most of my hardware (and not just photographic) is anything to go by 🙂

    • Michiel953 says:

      I can only repeat one of my earlier comments: the (alleged) beauty or ugliness of the subject of a photographic image should (in my opinion, obviously) not be confused with the (alleged) beauty or ugliness (or anything inbetween) of that image itself. By confusing the two, we will all end up making pictures of sunflowers only.

      Happy New Year all!

  4. Larry Kincaid says:

    Well, since national stereotypes have already come up, I hasten to add, “America solves the problem by asking the Italians to do the designs for us.” I think there are even specific automobiles made by Koreans, for example, that had Italian design inputs. Why not? You should never overgeneralize about these things, including German architecture, no doubt. Nice photos are still very much possible.

    • Michiel953 says:

      Some Kia’s (quite goodlooking imo) were designed by Hans-Peter Schreyer, of Audi repute if I’m not mistaken. Is it 20 years ago that some European car manufacturers started Californian design bureaus?

      I can recall when some 25 years ago “foreign” (Greek, Italian, Spanish) architects were asked to do urban revitalisation projects in The Netherlands, just because an alderman with vision wanted some diversity in the urban landscape. Not all efforts were succesful, obviously.

      Design is now and has been for quite a while a global phenomenon, although some people are obviously still stuck in design perception of a previous era.

  5. I live in Germany, and I can’t think of anything built post war that has any aesthetic merit. Even old villages out in the countryside have been remorselessly modernised in the most aesthetically insensitive way. It is almost as if the Germans have been persuing a collective self-punishment by destroying whatever sense of beauty they once had. If they can build a brutalist toilet block in an old medieval square, they will find a way to place it in the most prominent and aesthetically destructive space.

  6. Soulless yes, but efficiency is not soulless, is not good or bad. The lack of aesthetics, the seeming absence of a “savoir vivre” in many German cities does not make them efficient or not. Or do you suggest the equation: Efficiency=Soulless and In-Efficiency =Soulfull?

  7. If “soulless efficiency” is the gist of the article (and images), some posters and Ming seem to voice that sentiment, I find that slightly arrogant (and I’m not even German). Effciient yes, if that is you what you experience. Soulless? That’s very judgmental, and appears to be only linked to a commenter’s sense of beautiful or ugly.

    Or, with a reference to an earlier article, “soul” can be conferred (at will) to inaminate objects, and to (inaminate?) processes as well. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I find these images quite beautiful, in their own way. We don’t live in a museum, and cities are neither too big nor too small; they are what they are, living organisms, fascinating as such. They same actually goes for train stations, airports etc.

    • I understand your point of view, but (at least from my point) was not meant as derogatory. Let me offer an alternative explanation: as photographers, we can only convey what we experience. Efficiency, yes. Soullessness, also yes – if I did not experience anything personal or artistic or beyond the merely transactionally necessary, how can I communicate it?

      • Michiel953 says:

        Obviously, and my comment was worded maybe more harshly than I intended, so I apologize for that. What I’m not a fan of is the mixing (not by you btw) of personal opinion on the alleged beauty or ugliness of (inaminate) objects and the opinion on the merits of images of those objects.
        I have long had an interest in architecture (I’m a failed architect, but a reasonably successful real estate lawyer, ha ha), and have learned that beauty can be found in many forms, and is maybe not so important at the end of the day. Long lasting functionality is.

        Functionality, efficient (the Dutch have a reputation for designing efficient airports f.i.), the sense that it all works well and will continue to do so for many years of heavy use, that can have “soul”, even if the objects don’t conform to the more common conceptions of beauty. If those objects are visibly constructed shoddily (that’s an art in itself; build cheaply, efficiently, without the cheapness showing), that’s an eyesore (“bad” soul? Not “soulless” 😉 ).

        Images of “transferia” have a special attraction (to me) and if well done (as in your case) can be both meaningful and beautiful, and possibly even soulful. The beauty or absence thereof of the photographed objects doesn’t really come into it.

        • How can you separate the two, though? Photography is inherently biased and non-objective by nature; this means perception of beauty or ugliness will have an effect on the images produced by the perceiver (photographer). Or am I missing something?

          • Michiel953 says:

            I can separate them because I can. But that’s possibly too much semantics.

            I’m a firm believer of the idea that I can like a(n) (photographic) image without having an aesthetical opinion on the subject of that image forced on me. So yes, I can separate the two.

            Hieronymus Bosch painted some beautiful (?; that seems to be common opinion) of rather gruesome scenes; observers of his paintings usually don’t bring that into the equation. Taking that level of ugliness to a contemporary level; could we now find a photograph of a beheading “beautiful”? What did Hieronymus Bosch’s contemporaries think of his paintings?

            There’s no absolute truth.

  8. Kristian Wannebo says:

    “.. a sort of soulless efficiency ..”

    That expression rings a bell with me.
    I lived in Germany for many years and all too often had a similar feeling, but I never really found out about it. Only a couple of Germans among all I tried talking about that with could give me some sensible background to it.

    In two parts of Germany that I visited or lived a while in the human atmosphere was *very* different, east of the Boden lake and southeast of Celle.

    I have heard German students say, that it was a kind of a shock to return to Germany after their first year of research in other contries.
    When I mentioned my experience, they told me that there had been a lot of migration through those parts.

    – – –

    To me the photos illustrate mankind in too big (western) cities.
    But the blinds in the windows (nr. 4) and the ADAC advertising “.. immer für sie da.” – *very* German! – (nr. 11) give Germany away.

    As photos my favourites are nrs. 1, 2, 3 and 11.

    • I can see the attraction of a minimalist, efficient aesthetic, but it can be rather stark and impersonal at times, too. Then you get very strange humour indeed…

  9. You’d love the UK: neither efficient nor predictable.

  10. Maybe you should have mentioned where most of the pics were made:

    Soulless efficiency describes many places in Germany with the country lacking a sense of beauty, a sense of aesthetics in public spaces and infrastructure. Most damage was done after WW2 when the country was rebuilt in a haste. Unfortunately, things never improved again and actually got worse in the last 20 years as many municipalities faced bankruptcy. Stuttgart is a particular dump, but strange enough, I had similar feelings when I visited Kuala Lumpur…

    To give you an idea, that’s the Stuttgart town hall that was destroyed during WW2:

    And that’s what they replaced it with:

    • Kuala Lumpur: I don’t blame you. Those of us who live here frequently feel the same way too…it’s not because there isn’t money or resources allocated to development and maintenance; it’s because those funds evaporate in corruption.

      • Said AZIZI says:

        As a Moroccan, living in Casablanca, the point that Mr. T did mention truly bothers me : No aesthetics in public spaces and infrastructures. In Casablanca, this has never been taken into consideration during the city construction (After french colonialization), resulting in a mess wherever you go… The city’s architecture is soulless and the buildings are mostly white (hence the city name) which become grayish and dirty over time… and yes of course it is corrupted as hell !

        I sometimes think that it’s hard to take photos in this city because of that… but i remember your video from Havana and i just cancel that thought… still i think it does makes things harder.

        • PS : Havana appears to be more colorful and beautiful !

          Editing comments will be a plus to consider 🙂

          • No way to enable it in wordpress, unfortunately. Which actually makes sense as it would be possible for people to go back and change their own statements to render subsequent discussion nonsensical…and yes, I’ve seen this happen on purpose with some trolls. 😦

        • But at least you have the patina of age, to some degree – then light to make up the rest. If you have nothing but concrete blocks, non-pedestrian spaces and overcast days…then welcome to Kuala Lumpur!

          As for Havana: it’s unique because there is (was, at any rate) a) no advertising and b) lots of color 🙂

  11. Hmm.. Somehow these don’t tickle me in the right way. I’m not seeing a subject or purpose or pleasing aesthetics in many, and I can’t shake the feeling that they’re composition exercises but don’t go any further. That’s just a subjective view, but perhaps a useful data point. On the other hand, #4 (one with the boy) and the second last one are interesting, and the last one is very good (considered adding it to the Clouds are free series)?

    • There’s a sort of soulless efficiency to it, which I felt in Germany…the last one is actually the only one I think which does’t fit so well 😛

  12. Lovely photos! Good eye for beauty and interesting photos!

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