Düsseldorf School of Photography - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Düsseldorf School of Photography
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.
The Bechers were influenced by the Modernist pioneer Marcel Duchamp whose found utilitarian artworks - or "readymades" - paved the way for a more cerebral approach to what "art" was or might be. Duchamp's influence had its greatest impact on Conceptual and Minimalist art movements and the Bechers duly carried over his ideas into the teachings of the Düsseldorf School. Indeed, the Bechers felt that the industrial structures they "found" were photographic heirs to the readymades concept and the couple's first monograph, Anonymous Sculptures (1970), was conceived of as an homage to Marcel Duchamp's original contribution to the "rethinking" of the essence of art.
Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser met in 1957, while both were working at an advertising agency in order to finance their studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Trained as a photographer, Wobeser had initially worked with Walter Eichgrun, and she described his traditional and conservative approach as "direct, descriptive photography [with] clear, clean images - with a complete tonal range, with appropriate depths - devoted to the subject." As a student of illustration, Bernd was eventually drawn to photography by his fascination with the industrial structures of the German Ruhr valley where he grew up. Undertaking a series of drawings of a foundry that was being demolished in 1957, he took photographs to record the structure. However, finding that his photographs surpassed his drawings in their detail he turned exclusively to photography.
In 1959 the Bechers began collaborating on a project of photographing industrial structures, including water towers, blast furnaces, kilns, and gas tanks, in the Ruhr Valley. Their local approach, driving through the area in a van, was partly due to practical constraints, though they were also fascinated with the functional forms. They used only large format cameras to obtain the fine detail they wanted and only black and white film, evoking the practice of the New Objectivity movement. They also developed a system of rules that included: photographing only on overcast days to reduce the effects of shadows and so their prints would have the same tonal range, cropping the subject to fill up the pictorial frame, and shooting against a low horizon. Following two years of close collaboration, they married in 1961 and were to work together for the rest of their professional lives.
Following World War II, Otto Steinert's "subjective photography," described in his manifesto (1951), as "humanized, individualized photography," dominated German photography. The movement was part of a post-war shift towards humanist photography, as exemplified by Edward Steichen's popular "The Family of Man" exhibition of 1955. Emphasizing human feeling and narrative, the images were mostly taken with a hand-held 35mm camera that captured spontaneous movement and expression through reversed images, blurred figures in motion, and other techniques associated with the photographic avant-garde. In contrast, the Bechers used large format plate cameras, emphasized a distanced objectivity and precise detail. As art critic Michael Collins wrote, "While many would perceive this type of photograph as 19th-century in style [...] The Bechers' purpose has always been to make the clearest possible photographs of industrial structures [...] concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations." Between 1970 and 1972, the Bechers' photography became fully attached to the Conceptual and Minimalist art movements following their showing at two major international exhibitions: Information, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970, and Documenta V in Kassel, Germany, in 1972.
In 1976 the Bechers, by now well established within the contemporary art world, began teaching photography and establishing a dedicated photographic department at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, already known as a leading hub for Conceptual art in Germany. Joseph Beuys, a pioneer and leading figure in installation and performance art, had begun teaching there in 1961. Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke also studied at the school and Richter even took up a teaching post there. At the same time major artists including Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Richard Serra gave lectures and classes as visiting artists. Given the status of Kunstakademie, the Bechers felt compelled to elevate the status of the photography department. As Bernd said, "it was important for our students to be made aware that they were doing something which was totally the equal in merit to painting." Those students included Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, and others, who became the next generation of leading photographers.
Concepts and Styles
As art critic Kevin Lynch noted, the Bechers emphasized "a pattern of sequential experiences," creating a series of images that were connected to one another. They called this approach "typology;" that is the desire "to make families of objects," or "families of motifs." Yet their vision eschewed any sentimental or conventional view of "family," in favor of a more brutal take on nature, as they said, their motifs "become humanized and destroy one another, as in Nature where the older is devoured by the newer."
By the early 1960s they exhibited their photographs only as typologies, using a grid of four small images next to a larger print of a type of industrial structure such as a blast factory or a water tower. Eventually they expanded to their grid system to include more images - all of equal size - and often arranged in rows of three. The grids allowed the images to be discovered as subtypes of the same structure. The new grid format also allowed, when viewed from a distance, to be more of an imposing presence, while, on close scrutiny, the individual images took on a fascinating individuality. Later, when subsequent Düsseldorf School photographers adopted the large camera format, and their system of hard-and-fast rules governing the goals of objectivity, most of the Bechers' students preferred to place emphasis on the individual picture, though still within the context of an expanded series.
In 1969 the Bechers introduced the concept of "anonymous sculptures," a term they used to describe the industrial - "readymade" - edifices they photographed. The following year they published Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten (Anonymous Sculpture: A Typology of Technical Constructions) which became their most famous work and gained them recognition in the United States. The title reflected the view, from which they never departed, that the industrial structures they photographed were found objects and fitted thus with Marcel Duchamp's famous readymades concept. Indeed, because of their emphasis on the sculptural properties of their chosen objects, they received an award for sculpture (rather than photography) at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Later still, in 1999, they began using the term Grundformen, or basic forms, which further emphasized the nature of the structure itself devoid of all social and historical context. As they said at the time, "We want to offer the audience a point of view, or rather a grammar, to understand and compare the different structures. Through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association."
Large Format Photography and Digital Editing
As far back as the late 1950s the Bechers developed a photographic system that involved using large format cameras to create images of great detail. In 1986 Thomas Ruff and Axel Hütte began making large format prints in collaboration with Grieger, an advertising firm practicing in Düsseldorf. Presented initially as part of a "family" of images, individual portraits were isolated and enlarged to a scale that filled up a whole wall. Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth also adopted the large format and began bonding the image to a sheet of acrylic glass in what became known as the Diasec technique. As a result, the photograph was presented visually as if placed within the tradition of a gallery "masterpiece" while also taking on an observational quality.
Conceptualism and Minimalism
Though the term "Conceptual Photography" came into its own in the 1960s (coinciding with rise of the Conceptual Art movement) the practice can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century when Alfred Stieglitz photographed Marcel Duchamp's readymade urinal - Fountain. In the same spirit, the Bechers' photographs of "readymade" cooling towers become Conceptual artworks in their own right. Later still, Conceptual Photography developed to accommodate photo-editing that gave artistic legitimacy to portfolios that contained images that had been digitally "reworked." Ruff, for instance, used portraits of blank faces and found pornographic images which he pixilated to create original images.
Gursky, meanwhile, created composites by digitally combining several small images to create a single large image of a landscape or interior space. He also used digital editing to eliminate the "distractions" of architecture and human elements to bring a Minimalist simplicity and sparseness to his landscapes. The simple lines and geometric patterns of his images, coupled with a contrast in color and dark shadows, bring a certain texture to the image. By digitally altering the image, Gursky was able to make the most of "negative space" in order to accentuate the bare and basic elements of the composition as a whole.
Later Developments - After Düsseldorf School of Photography
In the mid-1970s the Bechers influenced the development of the so-called "topographic approach" to landscape. They joined a group that included Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Frank Gohlk for the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition at George Eastman House in 1976. The Bechers' objective approach struck a chord with many new artists who reacted against the romantic aesthetic and the Düsseldorf School of Photography was starting to be compared with the burgeoning New American Color movement, which emerged at roughly the same time.
The Düsseldorf School's aesthetic had a great impact on the development of Conceptual art, while its concerns with industrial subjects had a cultural impact in Germany too since industrial architecture was seen as befitting of historical preservation. In subsequent decades, the Düsseldorf School trained and influenced a number of new German photographers including Elger Esser, Frank Breuer, Simone Nieweg, Petra Wunderlich, and Laurenz Berges, as well as the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The contemporary generation of Düsseldorf photographers has carried forward the lessons of the original group - observational, dispassionate and prosaic - while allowing for greater personal expression. Axel Hütte, for instance, creates magical images of natural landscapes such as forests and mountains using compositional elements that copy abstract painting.
At the same time, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky became acclaimed internationally to the degree that art critics dubbed them the "Struffskys." Selling for $4.3 million, Gursky's Rhine II (the second in a series of six) set a record-breaking price for a photograph in 2011. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Struth became known for his 2011 royal commission to photograph Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. The following year, London's National Gallery held its first major photographic exhibition, including key Düsseldorf artists.
Critical challenges also crystallized, as in 2011 Professional Photographer magazine put forward the theory that the Düsseldorf School had effectively killed off photography. They argued that the work of the group left the audience cold, and that it offered no opinion or personality. The Düsseldorf School had made photography "easy" by focusing on the mundane and the everyday meaning that anyone could pick up a camera and claim their work was important art. Photographer Grant Scott summed the school up as, "photography without opinion, comment or personality." Nevertheless, in Germany, the Düsseldorf School has been perhaps the most significant artistic movement since The Bauhaus School and it was vital in rebuilding the status of photography as an artistic medium following World War II. The lasting legacy of the School has been to elevate the reputation of photography to that of historical painting, cementing, as art critic Alastair Sooke put it, "photography's legitimacy as contemporary art."