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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

In a move that was unprecedented (and all but unthinkable) in contemporary art circles, the Bechers were consumed with the idea that industrial engineering structures were, of themselves, worthy of aesthetic contemplation. The functional and symmetrical structures they admired also fitted perfectly with their mission to categorize and document the industrial landscape of Germany.
Born of a desire to create a new type of aesthetic index, the Bechers were responsible for the creation of the photographic "grid system" whereby they catalogued their images as "families" - or what they famously termed "typologies." There was a strict uniformity to the way the images were composed though by their nature each individual structure had its own look.
Though the idea was introduced by Thomas Ruff the year after he had finished his studies, members of the Düsseldorf School are still very closely associated with the idea of picture size and scale. Ruff took the principle of "typologies" from the Bechers but he was to enlarge his blank "passport" portraits to a dramatic scale thereby removing and isolating individual images from their original "family". His intention was to create individual photographic images on the magnitude of billboards and historical painting and this was a strategy adopted by Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky whose panoramic tableaus brought a new standard of image detail to photographic compositions.
Enamoured with Marcel Duchamp's concept of the "readymade," the Bechers coined the terms "anonymous sculptures" and "Grundformen" (basic forms). Though all consumed with the beauty and purity of industrial edifices, they approached these "sculptures" as found objects which they isolated and photographed in their "basic form" with the goal of bypassing all social and historical contexts and associations.
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.

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