Sunday, July 17, 2011

Photographers: The Dusseldorf School of Photography

When I set out on this course, I determined that a key element of my course work would be the study of other photographers, both to provide historical context, but also to consider how different styles influence my own.  A growing pile of books testifies to my interest, the lack of entries thus far in this blog testifies to my laziness, although in my defense I am currently working 60+ hours a week to be able to afford all these photo books.

My first entry considers a school of photography rather than an individual photographer, this is the increasingly lauded Duesseldorf School of Photography:

The Düsseldorf School of Photography

Since starting out with the OCA two major photographic movements have interested me and inspired my development as a photographer, the first is the New Topographics, the second the German photographers who emerged from Duesseldorf.  I had come across many of them individually, the Bechers, Gursky, Ruff, Struth, to name a few, however, I had not connected these artists together as belonging to such a tightly integrated group.

At the same time I had also started looking at the work of August Sander, although more in the context of Social Documentary than Landscape, through his work "Face of our Time".  Sander's study of the different "types" of people who made up the population of Germany in the 1920' and 30's was reflected in the typographies of industrial buildings that constitute the immense body of work associated with Bernd and Hilla Becher.  As a former student of Physics and Mathematics the methodical nature of their photographs and the detailed structural symmetries of the typographies appealed to my desire to find order in a chaotic world.  I am also a child of the industrial north of England, my grandfather was a boiler maker and his family miners in the Lancashire coal fields.  I had experienced the structures they recorded, but also witnessed the gradual loss of these structures as the mines closed and the sites were redeveloped.  The Bechers work is an important record of a world that has largely vanished, however, is it really art.  For me, yes! Simply put, I would gladly hang a reproduction of their work on my wall and enjoy it.

With this book, the connection from Sander, through the Bechers to the modern German photographers became clear, the Bechers were the teachers of many artists studying photography in Duesseldorf.  They developed this concept of New Objectivity, driving an aesthetic that dwelled on accurate recording and lacking in emotion or subjectivity.  Thomas Ruff tried to remove the person from portraits by shooting expressionless people and then enlarging to huge dimensions.  Candida Hofer took the people out of buildings, photographing largely empty interiors, structurally brilliant photographs, but lacking humanity.  Andreas Gursky used digital manipulation to combine photographs into vast collages with strong translational symmetry.  Thomas Struth photographed the complexities of modern manufacturing and science, but again with limited human engagement.

This objectivity translates well to Landscape and the majority of the work displayed in the book appears to me to have landscape as its theme, whether the inside of a building, racing circuit, or exterior architecture.  The scale is less important than the treatment and the structure of the final image.

Recently, their work has now come into question, the following article analyzes the influence of the Bechers upon modern photography, arguing that their influence has been too great and even malign

Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?

Perhaps! Much work is being produced in their style with similar flat tonality and printed at huge scale, however, fashion frequently dictates production.  If the art world buys into this, then artists who want to make money will produce for it.  In my case, I buy into their style, objectivity is not a problem, however a degree of subjectivity must inform my work, otherwise whose work is it really.  At my stage of development and with the type of photographs I currently want to create, there is much to learn from the Bechers and their students, the key is to balance that learning with the study of other artists with different style and content.

Finally I also believe that society drives art, these photographers are all German, all studied in an industrial city in the heart of Germany's decaying industrial landscape of the Ruhr.  They also grew up in post war Germany at a time when peoples right not to be observed by the state was a reaction to the experience of the 30's and 40's.  In a country where it is illegal to display a photograph in which a person is clearly prominent without their express permission, street and documentary styles of photography are not easy to pursue.  Objectivity, a desire to present the world as it is and preserve memories of landscape might also be a response to the terrible destruction wrought on German cities by aerial bombing and the invasion by the Soviet army in 1945. German art has a complex relationship with the past, perhaps objective recording of the present avoids asking the most difficult questions.

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