Art photography, according to this theory, is under ceaseless threat from the assimilative powers of visual culture at large.
There is nothing to be regretted about this state of affairs for it results in an attractive drama. Will x or y capitulate? How, up to now, have they resisted? The best art photography sails closest to the wind or deliberately runs most risks of assimilation. Art photographers, some of them at least, recognise the danger and court it. A lot of art photographers, of course, present themselves as eccentrics, do-gooders or life style devotees but they can be ignored for they run no serious risks.
The assimilative problem, with all its creative possibilities, began to emerge in the 1960s. There was a huge visual culture even then but it didn’t count for very much in the final analysis. In photography at least there was a well founded belief in strong pictures, and you can still hear its echoes today. A strong picture was one which got closest to the Word. It had to be a revelation vouchsafed by providence. There are a lot of good examples of providential photography in The Americans, for example: especially some pictures of holy people on the banks of the Mississippi in communication with the beyond. The photographer didn’t have to be a believer, but that was the culture in which high photography took place. Advertising and the commercial genres really didn’t matter in that kind of fundamentalist context.
What intervened so decisively was the linguistic moment c. 1970, most closely associated with the writings of Derrida. The linguistic moment promised chaos for it was marked by scepticism towards the kind of guaranteed meanings on which we had previously relied – that is, the ‘transcendental signified’. The regime of truth was challenged and overthrown, even if not immediately. In the newly established play of signifiers photography’s talented visionaries could only feature as quaint archaics. The linguistic moment introduced deconstruction which proposed that firmly held beliefs were often undermined by the language in which they were articulated. This kind of thinking had been developed in a literary context and didn’t seem quite appropriate to the visual arts. S o there was an asymmetry between this persuasive new way of thinking and those arts which couldn’t make much of it.
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In this situation the Bechers began to play an important role, perhaps inadvertently. In 1970 their book on Anonymous Sculptures was published with sections on pit head winding gear and cooling towers. Sculptures, before the age of installation, were undertstood as discrete units and photographed accordingly, which meant that the Bechers applied the same format to their pieces of vernacular art. One example of such a structure might warrant examination, and two might ask for a comparison, but more than that would constitute an inventory or simply point out a type. The Bechers are associated with typologies such as these, and typologies belong to taxonomy and to classification. To a genus we give a name, and then further names to species within the genus. The apposite thing about these typologies, from the point of view of the new linguistic turn of mind, was that they disregarded origins. The Bechers didn’t deal with the evolution of tram sheds, for instance. Instead they just displayed quite straightforward rationale they introduced a formula which had extraordinary potential. It may not have been the formula which sustained western art in toto during the next thirty years, but it was at least a template on which others could rely. With a legible formula to hand you could debate with others and didn’t have to invent yourself on the basis of whatever materials you arbitrarily came across. The Bechers’ was, in fact, the only formula in town.
If the linguistic moment downgraded the quest for origins it upgraded epistemological procedures of the kind which the Bechers demonstrated so very clearly. Epistemology, dedicated to the way in which knowledge works, doesn’t need fancy materials and will make do with whatever comes to hand as long as it can be situated within a framework. During the old visionary dispensation epiphanies were all important; they were the great justification, even if rarely sighted. Under the new terms of reference, however, there were no such compelling criteria and artists were under pressure from all sides: there was an awareness, not so easily expunged, of the old quest for origins, and the knowledge that visual culture, with its host of genres, was on the upsurge.
The Bechers relied on old fashioned ethics. If sculptors were artists it followed that anonymous sculptors were anonymous artists and worthy of respect. Thomas Ruff, using their typological format, explored the limits of the new thinking. He made several sets of what might be called portraits, although that itself is a questionable term when applied to obviously objective representations. Portraiture had always been a privileged genre for, as the face expressed spirit, it epitomized inwardness. Under this rubric it would be sacrilegious to use the human face as the Bechers had used tram sheds, for example. There is an element of lese-majesty about all of this art; not only are the portraits less than humane but he mistreats history too, phrasing it as a series of old newspaper pictures. Pornography, a disreputable category, he treats fastidiously in terms of its sub-species. The architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a known genius, is another subject perversely registered in a variety of formats, as if his genius would still shine through, come what may. It may be that the Bechers as artists were models of probity to a degree which drove Ruff, at least, into parody and transgression.
The Dusseldorf succession might be read as a family romance. The parents, models of rectitude who view everyman as an artist, raise a youngster who is interested in the classification of pornography and who doesn’t really treat Mies with the reverence he deserves. Candida Höfer looks more respectful and maybe less sure of herself. She has taken a lot of inclusive pictures thematically linked, as if she were a documentarist at heart. In the 1980s she made a series on zoological gardens which are, inevitably, about animal management. You will notice that there are certain requirements for the housing of giraffes, who need stretched doorways and high fences. In one example polar bears live in a painted snowscape with icebergs, meant either to put spectators in the mood or to assuage the bears, although they might not be convinced by fictions. The zoo pictures are part of a typology and this means that they are to be looked at reflexively, or with an awareness of the kind of remarks we are making. Empirical musing, of the kind just indicated, comes easily to documentary and in the humanist era it was justified because it was an example of the kind of empathy which leads to understanding. Latterly, though, it has been harder to make a case for it. Justifiable or not empirical musing is irresistible. We are open to distraction even on the most dignified of missions.
The apparent subject of Höfer’s typologies is paying attention and its cognates reading and listening. She has taken pictures of libraries and of concert halls and lecture rooms. In zoos we pay attention to wild nature, to the eating habits of tigers, for instance, but also to their tigerishness or to how tigers essentially appear to be. That is all very reputable, but a the same time we have our undeniable empirical side which can’t help but notice in the lecture halls, for instance, that mere details–a half drunk bottle of water or a disarranged chair–point to the time in between. Are the typologies a way of framing such contingencies, or do the contingencies simply enter in unavoidably? Contingency, beloved of Winogrand, used to be a brutal business involving threat and destiny. It reflected on the pitfalls in our way and on the extent of our plight. The Bechers too, and despite their wonder-working formula, were from that same heroic generation, and in this setting Höfer’s remarks look almost like an admission of frailty.
Meiosis is a useful term, from the Greek for lessening. As a trope it might have been devised to do justice to arte povera’s use of mundane items. Lessening entails modesty, but it might also imply that modesty is necessary and that immodesty is not a virtue. What it does in Höfer’s case is to put us closer to the realities of any situation in which contingencies are bound to crop up. Not to be aware of them would be to be blind to actualities, and to actualities which don’t necessarily make sense. Amongst such things we are, paradoxically, right at the beginnings of sense, and you will recall that the new deconstructive rubric drew the line at origins, which couldn’t really be construed. It is possible that the new linguistic regime with its warnings and prohibitions brought forth new forbidden fruit, including a preoccupation with origins. Axel Hütte is another part of the Düsseldorf inheritance, and notably undemonstrative in his pictures of landscape fragments, plant life and pieces of architecture. He refers to the typological formula for his pictures are in apparent series: river banks, mountain sides, woods. For the formula to go like clockwork its imagery has to be lucid and legible, but Hütte perversely often keeps to the shadows, which means that the scene has to be scrutinized carefully just to make sure. That delays the investigation, which is then further delayed by titles giving place and time. One place sometimes looks much like another and you wonder just what it is that distinguishes, for example, near identical plants in Australia and Madeira. His tactic seems to be to return you to a primal scene where the work of identifying and naming is in process. He suggests that the connection between places and names is tenuous and that it has to be confirmed, like Eden imperfectly rendered.
Origins c. 1950 weren’t exactly searched for because they were known in advance: God, the Word, Eden, the Founding Fathers – thinking of scenes from The Americans. Hütte on darkened Australian river banks is probably closer to the source but there is no certainty as to what sort of origin the place will deliver–maybe it will just return to darkness. Jörg Sasse, b. 1962 and one of the younger generation, devises an even more radical version of the quest. His pictures, published by Schirmer in 2001, can be ultra fastidious or shakily registered and the only typology they seem to acknowledge is that of picturing, so inclusive as to be otiose. He presents himself as a seeker after significance, and at the same time almost without preconceptions. The pictures are numbered but not titled, as if they belong to an ongoing investigation. References to the Bechers’ formula and discipline survive but Sasse–who doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression in the anthologies–has opened the scheme sufficiently to return himself to it as an auteur, even as a romantic artist, receptive to the magic of distant buildings and far horizons.
Without the Bechers’ magisterial example and without the linguistic moment art photography would not have existed. It is the Bechers’ strictness and simplicity which makes it so wonderfully tentative and transgressive: Ruff’s insolence, Höfer’s tremulous delicacy, Hütte’s primitivism and Sasse’s apparent perplexity. It is Thomas Struth, though, who is as intriguing as any of them, for he looks like the most easily tempted. He shares Ruff’s concerns for classification, and like Höfer, he is interested in paying attention as an idea. But he always pushes the Becher inheritance to breaking point. If you allow enough raw and extraneous material into the formula it will, sooner or later, make itself felt at the expense of the formula. Struth’s famous art gallery series, for example, looks for the most part like a controlled typology until it reaches a Venetian church, San Zaccarie, where image is heaped on image in the presence of a varyingly attentive audience. It begins to look almost like a picture from a guide book, and needs one if you are to sort out who painted what picture. Nor is the museum series just a typology in the manner of Ruff for the comparison it makes is interesting in its own right, as an emblem or piece of old style iconography: an audience of passers-by in the presence of well known gallery exhibits. The onlookers stand for consciousness and the art works look like objects of consciousness, and in most cases they outweigh their audience. Struth proposes some kind of imbalance between culture and community, and however it is phrased it still provides food for thought. We will end up with an aphorism or a piece of wisdom of the kind we might have expected in 1500 when art very definitely came freighted with meaning.
There is a programmatic aspect to Struth’s denials and reversions. In the 1990s, for example, he took pictures of flowers, not so familiar in vanguard art, and they feature in Still, an anthology of 2001. Flowers might easily form the basis of a typology but at the same time Struth’s taste seems to be for species flowers, which is to say for originals before they fell into the hands of breeders. He also took pictures of streets in Italy, and they too have typological possibilities except that he photographs them in a way which shows them as distinctly identifiable places from a possible guidebook to the city. Thus he opens the door to culture at large, welcoming botanists, tourists and pundits. He even inflects typological portraiture towards celebrity, an especially seditious manoeuvre considering the probity of the founders and their admiration for anonymous artists. One of his subjects, paradoxically, is Gerhard Richter.
The Bechers’ formula was indispensable. It meant that there was an armature ready made and that artists didn’t have to invent themselves unaided or with reference to the culture at large. It meant, too, that there was a body of doctrine which could be accepted, inflected or rejected. Doctrine in its turn meant difference, and in these instances considered departures from the norm which could be identified and seen as part of a collective project. Without German art photography we might have had no more than a shambles of individual initiatives put into effect by a series of forceful personalities in the style of Kippenberger. You might think of them as conservative radicals, but they have also been a force for cohesion – maybe the only one in the postmodernist era.
Published in Photoworks Issue 7, 2006
Commissioned by Photoworks