Photo Gallery: Halls of Beer Worship

Foto: Michael von Hassel

Oktoberfest's Cathedrals Artist Captures Places of Beer Worship

Photographer Michael von Hassel takes haunting photographs of Oktoberfest's cavernous beer tents once all of the millions of annual visitors have gone home.

One night security guard didn't want to give up his regular spot at the bar in the middle of the empty tent without a fight, recalls photographer Michael von Hassel. In the end, however, he agreed to move around the corner at the middle bar and Hassel was able to photograph an "Oktoberfest  Cathedral" -- one of the 14 beer tents at the annual festival , also known as the "Wiesn." He photographs them with festive lighting, but empty of people, at 4 a.m.

Hassel points to a photo titled "Augustinus Cathedral." There, in the middle of the 2-by-1.25-meter (6.5 foot by 4 foot) work, if you know where to look, you can see the security guard's laptop. "The tent was empty, quiet, barren, belonged only to me. Only then could I comprehend its size, make out the pathways -- when it's all full and you're partying, you don't notice all that."

The "cathedrals" are currently on show at Munich's Rathausgalerie Kunsthalle, displayed around a bubbling fountain, under glass, very shiny. They cost €15,000 per print and capture "Bavarian Skies" or "Lunatic Peace" from a central perspective, with an amazing depth of field that pulls viewers into the image. Hassel works with multiple exposures and brackets, "from fully over- to fully underlit and always according to the same pattern." He takes up to 90 images for one photograph. He himself describes his photographs as hyper-realistic.

Self-taught photographer Michael von Hassel stands in front of the exhibit of his Oktoberfest tent photos in Munich.

Self-taught photographer Michael von Hassel stands in front of the exhibit of his Oktoberfest tent photos in Munich.

Foto: Viviane Simon/ API

The exhibit opened shortly before the start of Oktoberfest, which begins on Sept. 19. After that, about 6 million people will spill across the Theresienwiese meadow and into the beer tents. "It is crazy what happens on the Wiesn during the day, it couldn't be more intense," he says. "Lovers meet, split up. Children are conceived, business relationships, friendships. Fistfights, happiness, pain -- it's a point of energy in the Bavarian cosmos." But the photographs reveal none of this. They exude a peace that one would never expect at the setting of the world's largest fair.

Munich's Beer Gods

Thirty-seven-year-old Hassel lives in Berlin for romantic reasons, but the self-taught photographer, former banker and trained businessman comes from Munich and works here. He belongs to the city's high society: His collectors invite him to eat at the fancy Käfer restaurant tent, which attracts local celebrities during the fair, and he talks about "my dear friend Christian Schottenhamel." Schottenhamel hails from one of the oldest Oktoberfest host families -- and made the photo project possible in the first place.

"Christian gave me an entry bracelet and a key for his tent -- that was the carte blanche for the whole thing," says Hassel. "He didn't think anyone had ever taken any a photo there at night." After the first photo of the barren Schottenhamel Tent, which he successfully sold, a second host expressed interest: "An Oktoberfest host is like a God in Munich, you can't simply call him," the photographer says. But once he'd impressed the first two, he soon had a list with the mobile-phone numbers of all of the Oktoberfest hosts and their security chiefs.

Michael von Hassel worked at night in the festival tents during the Oktoberfest over two years. He always did it between 3 and 4 a.m., when the cleaning team had cleared away all traces of the festival visitors. "I wanted to find out what it's really all about," the artist says. "What I encountered was tradition, ritual, singing, customs, masses of people, giant buildings." All things he associated with cathedrals. "People also come to the tents to worship," he says. "What they worship here is beer and filthy lucre."