Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography?
It is always difficult to choose a headline for an article. It has tocapture your attention and give you an idea of what the feature is about, while also enticing you into reading something that you may not have realised you were interested in. The headline for this piece came from a conversation I was having with a journalist who writes for this magazine, Peter Silverton. I was briefing himon the feature he wrote for our last issue (still available through our back issues department) on the current state of contemporary art photography and in doing so I was also trying to explain my frustration with so much of the photography I see – a frustration that has grown and grown over the past 10 years or so.
I found myself explaining to him how I felt I was seeing so much work influenced by the approach of the Düsseldorf School that it seemed to be to the detriment of all other work. “What’s the Düsseldorf School?” he asked. “The Düsseldorf School killed photography,” I replied.The influence of the teachings of the Düsseldorf School can be traced back to one husband and wife team of photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, who taught at the highly respected German art school from themid-1970s. Heavily influenced by and rigorously devoted to the 1920s German art tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, the Bechers photographed industrial landscapes and architecture in stark, graphic black and white, documenting Germany’s industrial past of water towers, mining sites and coal bunkers. Their work was cold, clinical, emotionless and documentary, echoing the spirit of the great German portrait photographer August Sander but without the personal connection. Photography without opinion, without comment or personality. A photography of observation, isolation and dysfunction, which found disciples in four contemporary photographic icons – Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer – all of whom were taught by the Bechers.
If you’ve seen any of their work, then you’ll understand New Objectivity (if not, make sure you visit the web links at the end before reading further). All of these photographers are internationally respected, exhibited and praised for their conceptual work. It is argued they have taken photography into new areas of personal expression and interpretation. They have made the idea of the photographic ‘project’ an art in itself.
So what’s the problem? Well, if we jump forward 20 years from the early teachings of the Bechers to the mid-1990s and the digital revolution, I think we have the answer.
We all have our feelings and experiences on the positive/negative debate that rages around the way in which digital technology has radically altered our profession. But the one thing that I think none of us can argue with is the fact that photography has never been as democratic. It is available to all, whatever your budget, skill or inspiration level. Taking a picture is now easy, but deciding on a subject is a lot harder.
If you are given a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw something, you are instantly faced with the problem of what to draw. You open yourself up to questions about why you chose a particular subject. We therefore rely on our memory and draw something we can; something we have drawn before and know will succeed and which is less open to criticism. If we are given a blank sheet of paper and asked to draw a house, we draw a house, it’s easy; we are in our comfort zone. I believe that the same is true of New Objectivity.
Thanks to digital cameras, more people than ever are entering further and higher education to learn photography. Increasing numbers are being given that blank sheet of paper to draw something on and they are turning to what appears to be the easy option. New Objectivity is the photographic equivalent of drawing a house. The financial, creative and commercial success of the disciples of the Düsseldorf School has put a stamp of approval on a kind of work that seems easy to do.
Imagine that I have been set a project at college on photographing my environment. However, I have little photographic experience and have yet to build up the courage to approach people with my camera. What shall I photograph? I know of New Objectivity, I’ve seen it in the college library and in last year’s end-of-year show.
I wander off and create an image that I shall call Shopping trolley in supermarket car park on a grey day, or Einkaufswagen im Supermarkt Parkplatz an einem Grauen Tag. It’s not quite as snappy as New Objectivity but it is observationally descriptive and has the all-important element of transformation to verify it. It may just be the Asda car park, but when translated into German it becomes one of a series of images which combine to become a personal exploration of environmental documentation. There we have it: a picture easy and cheap to take, some words to support why I took it and a German title. I am now a disciple of Becher and if my work is criticised I will quote the Bechers’ teaching and their followers’ success.I am now a New Objectivity photographer. I am in a comfort zone.
The problem is where as the original disciples of the Düsseldorf School were bringing new ways of seeing, that is not true of the hundreds, if not thousands of photographers now creating images inspired by the school. The work I saw coming out of colleges, art schools and universities this year felt like a tidal wave of depressing, observational self-indulgence and, more importantly, most of the work was uncommissionable. These are photographers who have given no thought to how they are going to make a living from their photography or who they are going to work for. They are documenting for the sake of documenting.
I love the fact that photography is now so open to so many but what we are talking about here is expectation. If you are passionate about your work and are happy to launch your own magazine to promote it, to see it hanging on a small gallery wall at your own expense or get it in a cutting-edge fashion or art magazine (without payment) for a small audience, that’s great. But if you want to earn a reasonable living through your photography, then you will need to think again.
“Photography without opinion, without comment or personality. A photography of observation, isolation and dysfunction, which found disciples in four contemporary photographic icons.” Grant Scott
To me there is a huge sense of the emperor’s new clothes about far too much of this work. Its limited aesthetic and repetitive approach to whatever the subject matter mean that only the very best will stand out in a sea of the mundane. Therefore, too often the mundane is over-hyped and promoted as something special by those who are unwilling to step out of the comfort zone of the contemporary aesthetic and the world of photography becomes skewed, with only one approach to work being recognised as ‘serious’. Commercial work is looked down upon as it is not a‘project’ or ‘personal’ enough, which quite simply is ridiculous.
Regular readers of this magazine will know that we are big fans of the personal project as a way in which to strengthen a portfolio, explore and extend a client base and enjoy photography. We love to see and hear about personal projects, we just don’t want them all to look the same. In the mid-noughties I was living in Brighton, East Sussex, in a converted section of a Victorian college. The main living space had been the lecture hall and was therefore the perfect space in which to exhibit photography, so every Saturday I turned my home into a gallery and invited the public in. Over a period of a year I exhibited as varied a selection of work asI could and even sold a fair amount on behalf of the photographers whose work we exhibited.
When the opportunity presented itself to exhibit as part of the Brighton Photography Biennial Fringe, I felt that I had gained enough experience to put on a successful show. I chose to display the work of the celebrated rock portrait photographer Jerry Schatzberg, famous for his images of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones and other greats of the period. The work had just been exhibited at the Atlas Gallery in London and both the gallery and Jerry kindly agreed to let me exhibit the edited highlights. I thought it would be a popular show in Brighton and the perfect way to promote the gallery space. I was also going to show work from my previous exhibitions to promote some lesser names. It was a simple commercial proposition. However, as soon as I started attending pre-event meetings with the mixed group of photographers also planning to exhibit I realised that I was the only person thinking in this way.
New Objectivity was and still is a powerful belief among Brighton photographers and they saw my commercial exhibition as shallow and irrelevant. It had no weight, they said. What was the message? They asked. What did I hope to achieve? They wanted to know. Initially I tried to explain my motives but I soon lost interest in doing so. My exhibition was miles from where they wanted to be and I left the fringe and staged the show on my own. It was a success but left a sadness within me that I hadn’t been able to bridge the gap between these two diametrically opposed understandings of photography. The irony is, of course, that the very photographers who lead the field of New Objectivity are themselves financially successful in the commercial world. It is just that it is the world of art, not that of commissioned work.
I am personally fed up with seeing portraits of people without emotion of any kind: portraits of people staring dead-eyed into a photographer’s lens, or avoiding the camera altogether. I am fed up with seeing images of American highways, petrol stations and diners. I am fed up with seeing images of blighted industrial and urban scenes in muted tones. I am fed up with seeing deliberately amateur snapshots documenting ‘everyday’ life. I am fed up with seeing nightmarish visions of our present and future. But most of all I am fed up reading the explanations of why these images are important. Why am I fed up? Because I want to see and enjoy all forms of photography. I want to see true personal expression, not a personal expression wearing the shackles of an aesthetic. I don’t want the world of photography to become alienating and difficult. Photography is not only about challenging perception, it should also explain, provoke myriad emotions and embrace all aesthetics. Commissioned work is just as important and serious as personal projects or exploration.
Has the Düsseldorf School killed photography? Well, maybe not, butunless we understand why it is so influential, it just might.
The Düsseldorf School of Photography, by Stefan Gronert, published by Thames & Hudson, £55, ISBN-13: 978-0500543566.
Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work, by Susanne Lange, published by MIT Press, £50.95, ISBN-13: 978-0262122863.
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