Petersen’s Ghosts

The Reeperbahn in the morning is the grass of Waterloo after the battle. Bodies and matter. Broken things. Mostly quiet. No simple task to avoid the glass and vomit and takeaway scraps. Here and there alertness, figures huddled together at benches whose wood is rotten, some with hands wrapped around half-litre beers, others pinching roll-ups. No romance, the bygone charm scoured from the streets.

I am in Hamburg to see the photographer Anders Petersen. There is a retrospective of his Café Lehmitz, analogue captures of one of the red-light district’s most notorious bars back in the 1970s. But that is for the evening. Now is daylight, and I am on the trail of Petersen’s ghosts. The brawlers, beggars, orphans and bastards venerated by Waits and immortalised in Petersen’s celluloid. They kiss, they cry, they dance, they drink. Suited and beautiful, cackling while in states of undress, chewed up and wrung out. Each photo offers a wonderfully tense dichotomy, and is likely the reason why the series remains in print fifty years later.

The actual Café Lehmitz itself is the place to start; I was surprised to find it still listed online. When I arrive, it is closed. A blackened dreadnought with standing tables like concrete crash barriers, the name spelled out in mirror tiles, a disco mosaic suggesting more glamorous times. Tethered to the door handles is a clapboard offering Jäger pitchers. My plan was to sit inside and try to reconcile the black-and-white bar with its present-day counterpart. No luck.

A bearded man wearing a corduroy jacket leans against one of the standing tables. I ask him if the place ever opens. He nods. At four. When I say it looks as like it has been closed for months, he shrugs. It isn’t the real Café Lehmitz, he tells me. That building was torn down in 1987. This one stole its name. I ask him if he used to go there. Sure, he says. All the time. And now? Another shrug. No such places anymore. He asks for some change. I give him five euros and he slips it into a pocket and shuffles away.

I have been duped by the internet and its half-truths. Not the first time.

This isn’t where a twenty-three-year-old kid from Sweden brought his Nikon F and began to shoot back in 1967. This isn’t where he fell in love over and over. This isn’t where he laid the groundwork for a career that would take him from prisons to mental hospitals and around the world. This place is nothing. Disappointed, I cup my hands and press my face up to the glass. No movement, no décor worth mentioning. Still, I came face to face with a ghost. Better than nothing.

I wander away from the squalor, to the harbour, to watch tourists in puffed jackets get battered by the wind coming in from the Norderelbe.

More panhandlers appear on the Reeperbahn as the shadows lengthen, punks in denim and metal with plastic cups that they thrust into the faces of passers-by. At the old Wirtstuben, hard-boiled locals drink Astra beers and smoke Pepe cigarettes. In the chain restaurants, tall Dutch girls order dayglo fishbowls and tacos. There is a McDonald’s that shares the same real estate as a three-storey sex club. The restaurant’s golden arches are sandwiched between windows whose glass is covered in naked blondes. Fresh meat as you like it, two-fifty or thirty-nine euros.

The imposter Café Lehmitz still isn’t open at four. My ghost in the corduroy jacket isn’t there either. A couple doors down, police officers in tactical vests interview a man whose rankness I can smell at ten paces. There is an open sore on his cheek, joining with the nose, and he has no shoes on. The officers wear gloves. A group of stylish French kids waiting at a traffic light make uncomfortable jokes about it.

On a quieter corner I find a bar that claims it has been running since 1911. Inside, smoke hangs like velvet drapes. Locals at four-seat wooden booths. Plants in the windows, boxes resting on stained doilies. Models of wooden ships held together with dust. Bronski Beat, Tina Turner and Talk Talk on the radio. When the barman takes my order, I ask him if they’ve really been open for more than a century. Yes, he says, but not in the same hands. The latest owners, a family, have had it since 1986. Did he ever go to Café Lehmitz? Before his time, he says. He was only a kid. But he knew a man who lived above the bar, his home a lumpy mattress that he shared with another, like Queequeg and Ishmael. What happened to him? Died of an overdose.

I sink into the place and for a few minutes I convince myself this is close. The history, the location, the out-of-time interior. But the characters aren’t right. Locals, yes, but comfortable ones. Hairdressers and HR managers and delivery drivers, not prostitutes or gamblers or drug addicts. These are my parents, lower middle class baby boomers, getting a buzz on before they head home.

When I pay, the barman hands me a belt bag embroidered with an Astra logo. A gift, he says. Sometimes we give them to newcomers. The locals say ciao on my way out.


I meet Anders Petersen in the evening. In the gallery there is a good view of cranes and ship cans. Tanned old men and younger women play dress up. Suits without ties, kitten heels, jasmine and ombre leather. The prints are three high on the walls, developed in a Stockholm darkroom in the mid-1970s. Petersen sits in the corner of the whitewashed box, a beer on the sill next to him. Slightly stooped, thinning grey hair, hands interlinked on his lap. When I greet him, he peers at me through round black spectacles and turns his head to hear me better.

He tells me the stories he tells everyone else. About Marlene, about Rose, about Lilly. He is put out by how many photos of Marlene are on the wall; he was in love with her, spent too much time photographing her when he could have been documenting other shadows of Lehmitz. There was another girl, he says, who he truly loved. Vanya. 1962. A Finnish prostitute who used her innocent eyes and body to earn all kinds of money. Five times in a night, sometimes. Then gone, disappeared from the scene forever, leaving his heart in two ragged pieces.

Wasn’t he afraid to put a lens in people’s faces? Oh yes, he says, but only in the beginning. Most liked the attention. And what drew him to the café in the first place? He was looking for his friends, he tells me, ones he made five years previously when he travelled to Hamburg at the age of seventeen. Saved money all summer and spent it on a ferry ticket. Of the group, only two were still around. The rest had faded away.

We talk about other things. Knausgård on the toilet. Bukowski’s need for rehabilitation. Architecture in Stockholm. The self-aware moments he has at events like these, when he tunes in to what he’s saying. But mainly we discuss his photos. The fatalism. The occasional horror. The sense of community above all. He blinks a lot as he speaks and he reaches over and clasps my hand or my leg when he makes a point. His voice goes up and it goes down. He looks tired. There is less of him here than in the interviews I’ve seen. Perhaps because he’s talking about Lehmitz again. His ghosts summoned once more for our viewing pleasure and dissection. Or perhaps time is simply catching up with the seventy-nine year old. Eventually, a woman interjects, asks him to sign a copy of his book, forever in print. He clasps her hand and asks for a pen. I slip away, but not before he assures me we’ll finish our conversation. Much later, when I look for him in his corner, he is gone. A Swedish exit.

I speak to the gallery owner about Anders Petersen. They have been friends for twenty years. How does he appear tonight? Well, says the owner. A little tired of being in the spotlight, but they have sold many photos to the tanned old men in their starched shirts. Not the vintage prints on the walls; those aren’t for sale. The edition of a morose Rose and a laughing Lilly that Tom Waits used for the cover of Rain Dogs is sold out. Ten thousand euros per print. A world away from where it was taken. I bet some of those barflies never earned even ten thousand D-Marks, let alone euros, in their lifetimes. The ones who died young, at least.

It feels incongruous.

On the Reeperbahn at half past midnight and it is a snake eating its own tail. Lights and bodies and taxis and sex. The Pink Palace, relatively unassuming during the day, is the loudest building on the block. It hurts to look at. Police everywhere. Kids spill out of a Burger King and into the road and a driver slams his horn. Kebab men sling döner to hungry stag boys who find seats at trestle tables or else right on the ground. Raised voices, a fight that is quickly broken up. Short stories happening everywhere. I linger, but I get no satisfaction from this street. It is too charmless, too plastic.

My hotel is adjacent to the Pink Palace. In my room, I can hear it all. Wild souls and sirens, a white-hot fire slowly burning itself out. It is a while before I can sleep.


The morning after. In the hotel room, sunlight evades red curtains and lays in bars on the carpet. Someone vacuums next to my door. Sirens in the street outside. I have a heavy head. I wonder where Anders Petersen disappeared to the previous night. A stroll along memory lane, perhaps. More likely his bed. He is giving a talk about his work later today. Lilly, Rose, Scar, Sara, Sigrid, Marlene, Mona, Elfie and the rest will be looking down on him. His family, his angels, his cross.

The same scene on the Reeperbahn as the previous day. Fresh casualties in a war that doesn’t want to end. A man lies buried in a sleeping bag that rests on a cardboard mattress. Another is passed out in the doorway of a cinema. I stare at the derelicts and the forgotten who have burrowed deep into the seams of this road. Here are Petersen’s ghosts, hiding in plain sight. The difference is they have nowhere to go. In his photos, the hopeless came together, swathed in shirts and ties, dresses and heels, in search of camaraderie. If you squint, they could be movie stars. Today is pure chaos. The hopeless are strewn across the city, homelessness rising, tent cities under bridges and overpasses. There is no togetherness. No community. No safe space. Yes, Petersen’s characters had their own problems, and to romanticise the era without acknowledging its dark side is disingenuous. But the fact is it has been more than half a century since the book Café Lehmitz was published, and in that time we haven’t created nearly enough safety nets to catch those who need catching. All we’ve done is push them further to the fringes than ever before—and price them out of the addresses where they might have found a sympathetic ear or another chance.

The original Lehmitz had a sign over the bar that said: “In heaven there is no beer, which is why we drink here.” Wherever it is they—the lost, the seekers, the indigent—drink now, it isn’t in a place like Café Lehmitz. The concept no longer exists.

Writing: Grant Price // Photos: Daniel Montenegro

Litro Magazine

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