Petra Pierrette Berger

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A Photographers' Life With Classic Cars   (Excerpt from the essay)


One day, not too long ago, I found myself at home with two bulky folders filled with contact sheets, together containing close to thirty years of a photographer's life. What I was looking at, when scanning these miniature pictures with my magnifying glass, was not only a joyous and persistent preoccupation with classic cars, but also with an entourage that playfully revives an era in which the automobile was still surrounded by a certain, mythical 'grandeur'. A genuine splendour vibrates from these images, a majesty that altogether defined a world still unknown to me. I was excited!
Petra Pierrette Berger (b.1957) skilfully drives the viewer, with concentrated precision, to this conclusion: classic cars are to be considered technological jewellery. They are delicate as objects and can trigger intimate affections. Indeed, the automobile can be admired as an object when stationary but, as her highly aesthetic monochrome photographs also reflect, the car in motion – the roaring engine, the shifting of gears, the smell of gasoline and burning rubber – that is what really stirs the blood of whomever can recognise, in this machinery, a close companion in the everlasting need to look ahead, to see what's coming next. 
In the three odd decades that she – together with her beloved '2CV' – visited rallies and automobile shows, Petra documented the joyful recovery of an ambiance; the 'aura' surrounding classic cars in all their forms and shapes. With a concentrated look, admirable diligence, and a warm eye for the culture surrounding these events, she has thus not only photographically witnessed but also personally experienced how these machines are nurtured, as if they were beloved pets.


Photography and cars came early in the life of Petra. Her father was always seen with a camera, documenting the everyday life of his family. Performing a private life centre stage was not really something his daughter aspired to, though. Around the age of ten, her eyes fell on a book filled with pictures of wild horses. Wow! Those untamed yet noble animals... how their intuitive movements were somehow magically frozen in time. Not much later Petra was practising horse riding, but by that time she'd already understood the feeling of acceleration.
We need to move fast forward, to the year 1983. Petra decided to redirect her life. She was fascinated by anything that could be defined as 'vintage', and in its post-war era of recovery Germany had little to offer in that direction. The Germans, too, wanted to move on – ideally, without looking back.
Paris, therefore, was a far better place for Petra to outlive an avidly romantic desire, a graceful urge for freedom in which the car would perform a key role.
Soon after arriving in Paris she found herself walking around with a camera. Her favourite practice was to stroll around the city and capture people off-guard. Then Petra somehow ended up at a posh party organised by the fashion magazine Vogue. There, at this venue, she witnessed some kind of 'concours d'elegance': an event where prestigious vehicles are displayed and judged – in this case combined with a 'haute couture' show. Gorgeous women beautifully dressed and elegantly engaging with a smooth, curved machinery that delivered them to the stage. Petra had found her Wonderland, but she'd never give up on her '2CV'. The classic car and its entourage would become part of her life – but more as a theatrical spectacle, enrichment, an addition and not a replacement of a more 'real' life. She got attracted to this extraordinary environment and soon enough took part in it, albeit mainly in the role of an observer.


In Man With A Movie Camera (1929), Dziga Vertov's experimental and soon thereafter influential documentary, we see exactly that dizzying 'symphony' of modern life in which the automobile had so demandingly steered itself to centre stage. By that time, the car had completely turned the experience of society upside down. It affected the desires of the common person, the nature of labour and of leisure. Urban life would never be the same again. People no longer laughed at the automobile, instead embracing it as part of the larger democratic machinery, with anxiety and anticipation but wholeheartedly.

The car has reshaped our scope on the environmental 'landscape' – a radius ranging from the rural vistas all the way to the vivid urban metropolis. It has extended our geographical horizons and radically altered our conception of space and time, and photographers have always managed to show their peculiar angle on the car. It all more or less started with Jacques Henri Lartigue, who was fascinated with the rapid progress and changing shapes of the automobile. He seemingly loved everything about them – their intriguing look, the accoutrements of the driver, the occasional flat tire.
The automobile was still an exclusive object at the time, only within reach for the 'fine fleur' of society.

How very different the situation today is! Unappealing but demanding as these metallic monsters can be in their omnipresence, cars occupy our visual environment. The German visual artist Wolfgang Tillmans thus aimed to send out a reminder of how cars appear in our typical contemporary street view. In The Cars (2015) he presents a cross section of what cars ‘actually’ look like in a global sampling and how they interact with their surrounding environment. Stripped from any kind of picturesque aesthetics, these photographs show the car in its most mundane form.

But that is not what interests Petra Pierrette Berger. Instead of sending out a reminder of the mundane existence of the car, it is more appealing for her to ignore this everyday banality and instead engage, if only briefly, with the more pristine aspects of a glorious past. One glance at her images is enough to realise how she feels more acquainted with the cultivating strength of time, as performed by the classic car and as conserved by traditional, black and white documentary photography.



Unfortunately, photography lacks the ability to record the roaring engines the resonating compressors, the smell of the fuel or the shrieking of the mechanisms – in short, the materiality of it all. Alas, the steaming aura of these classic cars. Just imagine the joy one feels when the hood is being opened. That is what I was seeing – and could almost touch – when confronted with Petra Berger's impressive and now finally disclosed archive. By looking at it all, however, one can only arrive at this conclusion: the car, as a subject, is only pretext. It is the vintage car culture that matters, first and foremost, and the camera has served as the ultimate tool to compress it into a shining pearl. What is on offer here is a generous invitation to us, the viewers, to sit in the front row and share the passion for vintage along with a glamorous branch of the 'homo ludens.'
Thanks to Petra Pierrette Berger, whose exceptional photographic eye has preserved it all in the most vivid manner, we can now enjoy looking at this classy car culture through her rear-view mirror.

Erik Vroons,
Amsterdam, October 2017