New Design

Düsseldorf School of Photography

Düsseldorf School of Photography Collage
Started: Mid-1970s
There is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either. They are engineering constructions with their own aesthetic.
Bernd and Hilla Becher Signature

Summary of Düsseldorf School of Photography

The Düsseldorf School of Photography - sometimes known simply as the "Becher School" - takes its name from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where Bernd and Hilla Becher began teaching photography from 1976. The Düsseldorf School set new standards of objective excellence for art photography and provided the foundation for some of contemporary photography's most important names. Vehemently opposed to what they saw as the indulgences of expressive and experimental photographic techniques - especially those of German photographer Otto Steinert, who had gained fame for a highly subjective approach that included blurred figures in motion, reversed exposures, and various other experimental techniques - the school fostered an attitude of detached observation and fine picture detail which associated them with the Conceptual and Minimalist art movements.

At the Kunstakademie, the Bechers, who themselves produced in excess of 20,000 images, launched the first dedicated university photographic department in Germany. There, the Bechers educated and influenced three generations of German photographers including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Laurenz Berges, Elger Esser, Simone Nieweg, Jörg Sasse, and Petra Wunderlich. Though the individual members took their practice in new directions, the Düsseldorf group remained consistent in their commitment to the principles of their founders. Often presented to the public on the scale and complexity of historical paintings, their photography took its rightful place along-side other fine art movements.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

Key Artists

Overview of Düsseldorf School of Photography

Düsseldorf School of Photography Image

The Düsseldorf School drew upon several influences, including industrial photographs dating back to the 19th century and the New Objectivity of the 1920s. New Objectivity photography was exemplified in the works of August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Patsch. Sander's portraits, published in his Face of Our Time (1929), depicted a cross-section of German society with seven 'types', organized by profession. Blossfeldt photographed plants in magnified detail, emphasizing, in his words, a "totally artistic and architectural structure," while Albert Renger-Patzsch's photographs of manmade and natural forms, took on a scientific precision, as seen in his Intersecting Braces of a Truss Bridge (1928). Industrial photography, practiced by commercial photographers, was, as art critic Michael Collins observed, "commissioned to record both great and everyday industrial and civic projects" while adding that most "industries would maintain a photographic record of their operations." These "record photographs," influenced the Düsseldorf School's subject matter and their emphasis on picture clarity and detail.

Important Photos and Artists of Düsseldorf School of Photography

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Cooling Towers (1983)

Cooling Towers (1983)

Artist: Bernd and Hilla Becher

This image brings together twelve photographs, of equal size, of industrial cooling towers, arranged in a grid, creating what the Bechers' called a "typology". Photographed with a tableau approach, and filling the pictorial frame, each cooling tower is represented in sharp objective focus that allows each structure, as art critic Will Martin noted, to "be identified for its individual features. In much the same way that one might read different faces in a portraiture exhibition."

The pair continued photographing structures of this kind over the following decades, producing, in the words of art historian Michael Collins, "a magnificent history of the fast-disappearing modern archaeology of the West's industrialisation" (though the Bechers sometimes photographed new industrial structures too). To obtain the precise detail that individualizes each tower they used only large format cameras to create a fusion between their "typologies" and the philosophical interests of the contemporary artistic avant-garde. Indeed, their families of "anonymous sculptures" lent themselves well to the tenets of Minimalism, which celebrated functionalism and purity of form above all else, while the idea of repetition was a central column of Conceptualism.

However, whereas Minimalism and Conceptualism lent themselves to the "de-skilling" of art, The Bechers' punctilious approach to their "sculptures" placed great importance on technique. They summarized their practice thus: "The particular strength of photography lies in an absolutely realistic recording of the world. This sets it apart from all other image media; photography can do this better than anything else. And the more precisely it depicts objects the stronger its magical effect on the observer." The Bechers were thus able to contribute to development of contemporary art practice without compromising on artistry. Indeed, they succeeded in transforming attitudes towards photography within the elitist cliques of the fine art world.

Thomas Ruff: Portrait 1986 (Stoya) (1986)

Portrait 1986 (Stoya) (1986)

Artist: Thomas Ruff

Taken the year after he had completed his studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, this photograph was part of Ruff's Portraits (1986-91), an extended series where the subjects - each titled with the series' title, the year and the subject's name - were friends and colleagues of the artist. This large color portrait shows Stoya, a young man, his head and upper chest and shoulders filling the frame. Against the white background, he gazes with a composed but blank expression toward the viewer. The highly realistic representation - without any identification or expression of personality or feeling - conveys the overall effect of a utilitarian passport photo. As Ruff said of the image, "I wanted to do a kind of official portrait of my generation. I wanted the photographs to look like those in passports, but without any other information."

The art historian Douglas Eklund observed that Ruff was the first of the Düsseldorf photographers "to dramatically enlarge the size of his pictures - a move intended to refer his works to the scale of traditional art as well as that of the highway billboard - and to face-mount them directly to a sheet of Plexiglas to enhance their sheen and objectlike quality, two technical innovations widely imitated in contemporary photography."

Ruff returned to the Portraits series in 1998 stating, "I don't believe we can still make portraits in the conventional sense of 'representing a personality' today [...] Which is why I imitate portraits." At the same time, art critic Régis Durand argued that, because of their impersonal neutrality, the portraits "undercut any attempt to look for clues that would allow one to go beyond them." Ruff's Portraits series acted thus as both a record - or "typology" - of a family of individuals and as a blank, lifeless, record of faces and bodies. In this respect, his Portraits invite the spectator to reflect on the photographer's quest for authenticity in the photographic portrait.

Thomas Struth: The Smith Family, Fife (1989)

The Smith Family, Fife (1989)

Artist: Thomas Struth

Struth started out as a painter and studied under Gerard Richter at the Düsseldorf School, but, feeling that he was "making big super-realist photographic paintings that just seemed pointless and a bit stupid," he turned all his creative attentions towards photography. In 1976 he joined the first photography class offered by the Bechers, and his first images were of the empty streets of Düsseldorf (his hometown). Struth produced his first family portrait series between 1983-84 having collaborated with the psychologist Ingo Hartmann on the photographic anthology Familienleben (Family Life).

This image comes from his later Family Portraits series. It depicts the Smith family, its eight members standing or sitting closely together in their sitting room. The room is furnished with overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, and a number of artworks on the wall. Yet all sense of a harmonious domestic environment is called into question by the group's guarded expressions. Indeed, their unsmiling faces look dispassionately into Struth's lens. As art critic Richard Sennet wrote, "We relate to these images as we might appreciate strangers in a crowd; we feel their presence without the need to transgress boundaries by demanding intimacy or revelation [...] people guard their separateness even as they present themselves directly to us." Static and frontally staged, the portraits translate the conventions of 19th century photography into a contemporary idiom. As Struth said, "The public have always been drawn to them because they see a reflection of themselves, their own families. They sense, I think, that these are just condensed slices of an epic."

Struth's approach to portraiture is less uniform than his contemporary Thomas Ruff. In a 2008 interview with the photojournalism magazine Foto8 he explained how he adhered to "a very small number of rules". These included the use of a large format camera, relying only on natural light sources, and that the family group all look into the camera. As he said: "I usually make a choice for the location, and then people can position themselves on the stage that I've selected - which most of the time is where they live [...] Within that setting there are different freedoms - they can wear what they want, position themselves next to who they want - they can smile or not smile." He added that his sitters "can also object to publication and say we don't like it - don't use it. If they approve the family get one first edition print signed and framed as a gift."

Useful Resources on Düsseldorf School of Photography

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Düsseldorf School of Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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