Berlin has an extensive subway network — 10 lines, 170 stations, 151.7 kilometers of rail. The network transports 507 million passengers every year.
In 2014, I photographed all those signs. The end result is one giant poster and a few (not that useful) learnings!
I’m certain not many people have seen every station along the Berlin subway network. Especially if you’re not from here, there really is no reason to go to Hönow, Wittenau or Rudow. Early last year, I decided that my photography project of the year would be to document all the subway station signs of the city. While the project itself might have gotten slightly redundant after a while, the spaces in between, waiting for the next train, walking out to explore a random neighborhood, or chatting with people confused by the bearded, foreign looking dude jumping in and out of the train at every stop, made for a very exciting experience.
Initially, I thought to code a routing algorithm that would calculate the optimal path (too lazy), and to explore the area around every stop (same). In the end, I managed to snap my last photo in the evening of Dec 30th, barely making it in time. And while I wouldn’t mind retaking some photos in the future, this project is done for now. Here are some observations I made along the way, a beauty contest, and a great poster by my friend Michael
A clear pattern arises after riding a few lines from center to end. Barring the shorter lines, and those that only span the city center, younger people and “expats” are prominent in the central third of every route, the second third is full of immigrants, and in the outer , almost only native Germans are anywhere to be seen.
I postponed the U5 trip for as long as possible, and ended up doing it with my flatmate on Dec 30th. The line is fucked up, for lack of a better word. We drove up and down three times because I didn’t feel comfortable stepping out at one particular station (Hellersdorf). The last station on the U5, Hönow, felt like a remnant of a long gone era, grey, lifeless, and fenced off. The new U55 (the so called “Chancellor’s line”, which one day will become part of the U5) is a markedly clean and shiny contrast.
For a lot of people, particularly expats, people in startups and hipsters, the U8 is the lifeline of the city. Apart from a few stops towards the northern end, the signage is relatively bland (or minimalist, this being Berlin).
In the beginning, I assumed that I would have to wait for the next line at every station, which would have taken me ages. Eventually, I established a rhythm wherein I managed to shoot around 8 signs at a time while managing to jump back into the same train.
I avoided taking photos late at night (trains run way less frequently), rush hours (too many people), and ended up shooting most of the lines at around 9pm, and occasionally on a Saturday (trains run less frequently on Sundays too).
I also realized that the best cars to get into are the second from last or first. The stations tend to have more obstructions (kiosks, stairs, etc) towards the middle, and there were always too many people towards the end. The added benefit was that I could still shoot a sign even if there was a train on the opposite track. Barring the weird looks I got from strangers as I hopped in, ran to frame and shoot, and ran back to squeeze in as the doors were closing, this strategy worked perfectly.
Signage Beauty Pageants
In general, the stations in the western part of the city are prettier. Some of the shorter lines (U3, U4) have very intricate, ornate signs that help to mask the distinctly suburban feeling of those lines.
All the above ground stations had the exact same sign (a very functional, sublimely boring one). The abundance of those earned the U1 the title of ugliest line.
Many stations were newly renovated, or under renovation when I photographed them. The general pattern seemed to be the use of modern, minimalist, sans-serif signs.
The longest line in the network, the U7, wins the beauty contest. The stations out west, in particular, are very distinctive.
Enough words. Here are a couple of hi-res posters that Michael helped design — feel free to download, print and use, they’re licensed under Creative Commons by-nc-sa 2.0. I’m happy to share the print versions, or even the original photos (if you have a cool idea that you want to use them for), get in touch @ramz
Download the hi-res versions here.