I am not ashamed to admit that I was nervous at the thought of meeting Sven Marquardt. This is, after all, the man who can make or break the future of your career in nightlife. As one of the gatekeepers to Berlin's infamous Berghain, it falls on him and the members of his team to decide on the select few allowed entry into the happiest place on Earth... and who gets to make the long walk of shame across the muddy expanse surrounding the gargantuan club and back to reality. If our interview didn’t go well, I could become one of those people left stranded outside forever.
And though his role at the hallowed establishment caused me considerable stress, it was not what we were there to discuss. Aside from being one of the more recognizable faces that guard the entry point to Berghain, Sven is an accomplished photographer. It is a pastime that he is profoundly passionate about, and it is one he has been practicing for several decades, a period of time that has been particularly tumultuous both for himself and for his hometown of Berlin.
Raised in the former Eastern sector, Sven picked up the camera “entirely by accident. After school I didn’t really know what to do, I did an apprenticeship as a photographer because I was not interested in going to university.” Despite this indifference, he was able to recognize that his world was one that was inherently unique and presented an equally unique set of challenges, so the need to document it proved a natural instinct. “In Prenzlauer Berg...things just weren’t accessible. We weren’t able to get vinyls, we couldn’t go out and buy leather jackets. So the fact that things were not accessible makes you creative.”
This inaccessible, clandestine world was of course populated with an eclectic set of characters, and it was this aspect that inspired Sven most. His entire career is one made up of piercing portraits, each one a character study in itself. And in honing in on the human elements of his work, it frees his work from the constraints of time or place. At one of his most recent exhibitions, he told me that guests were shocked to find out a set of imagery featuring women captured in the 1980s were not contemporary at all. “I like to take photos that are timeless.... but of course you can’t plan that,” he told me, taking a last swig of his cappuccino.
His method is one that is also timeless. Throughout his career, he has consistently kept many elements of his creative process. “I still only shoot on analog, and only with natural lighting... and I prefer to have no assistant or stylist. It makes the whole thing more intimate, you have to maintain that energy.”
When looking at his work, all driven by the examination of an individual character, drawing a comparison to his work as doorman-in-chief seems perfectly clear. After all, both of these activities involve heavily scrutinizing someone and evaluating aesthetic worth. Yet Sven made a point of distinguishing between the two. “There’s a rule that I actually keep my job on the door completely separate, although there are moments when I think about someone that would look great in a photo, but I would never mix one with the other,” he says. "Once I tried to mix the borders, but it doesn’t work.”
Perhaps fittingly, Sven remained as much of a mystery after our conversation than he was when he was still a solemn figure whose eye contact I avoided at the door. I had already held him in high esteem for intimidation-related reasons alone, but after he explained to me that his passion for photography stemmed from his conviction of “staring down the void, life is finite,” I realized that this is a man truly operating on a higher plane of existence than mine. No wonder he gets to choose who goes into the party.
For more of our music interviews, check out our discussion with rapper Mykki Blanco right here.