Fotograf Magazine

Candida Höfer

Overfilled Emptiness

The work of German photographer Candida Höfer divides, in an interesting way, the art and art theoretical scenes. Whereas a majority of the specialized public enthusiastically accepts the monumental and, in a positive sense of the word, elitist character of her photographic oeuvre, it strikes the others as spectacular and coldly decadent. The applied model of emptied space, qua environment made via human activity in which the human body is absent, becomes proof for critics of a contrivance and schematization on a thematic level. The artist, convinced that what she is doing is right, however does not pander to public taste. She works with principles preconditioned by imagination, an audience’s personal experience and a respect for non-material values. Candida Höfer’s creative position was also shaped via her positive relationship to the early modern period, especially to the canons of Renaissance-style representation and to architecture, which she perceives as the communicational intermediary between today and epochs long since passed. 

During the second half of the 1970s, Candida Höfer studied photography with Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Düsseldorf State Art Academy. With her pedagogues and generational companions Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, she became part of the circle known as “New New Objectivity” (“Neue Neue Sachlichkeit”), “New Topography” or simply “the Düsseldorf School.” That is to say that through systematizing, cataloging and structurally analyzing the motifs that give evidence of a period’s character, the individual artists of this generation did indeed follow up on the inter-war “New Objectivity” of Albert Renger (the Bechers, Höfer), August Sander (Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff) and Karl Blossfeldt. 

In order to thoroughly understand the factors that led Candida Höfer to a rigor, difficult at times to grasp, in her composition of architectural shots, let us try to uncover the social potential of one of the themes she has been working on for a long time: empty movie theaters. In the dark ages of pre-cinematography, namely during the early 1890s, the two teams of the godfathers of filmmaking stood head to head. Both the European team of the Lumière Brothers and Thomas A. Edison’s team overseas were dedicating themselves to the development of technical instruments that would enable filming and processing film. The French inventors, unlike the Americans, progressively came to presenting their results via group screenings. Spectators in awe of moving images meant a new visual experience charged in an unexpectedly expressive and emotional manner, and that was much stronger when shared with groups in movie theaters, which were to become, within the first decades of the 20th century, an essential standard in film projection. 

In the ephemeral position of flickering movements, cinematography became one of the ways of imitating Christian transcendence. A gradual shift from human destiny’s being unexceptionally dependent on Christian rite and the path towards the discovery of its replacement steered society in the 19th century towards other experiences of the “sacred.” In addition to the already mentioned example, science and education also took on this task. They formed substantial pillars of an industrial society preferring, unlike before, the prioritized invariance of progress’ potential. In this regard, vast library halls and university auditoriums also changed into distinctively beautiful and fascinating modern cathedrals. The last category, comparable to liturgy in effect, respect and the power to enchant, is to be later constituted by art and the institution representing it. Movie theaters, schools, repositories, libraries, galleries and museum exhibitions will become, for a secularized person, a place of confrontation, but likewise mediation and other forms of inner contemplation.

Mainly their social function and their most important mission, a distribution of information, generate the architectural style of these places. The space’s particular determination is then apparent even during the temporary absence of the addressees whom it serves. It is exactly Candida Höfer’s institutional probes, forming a whole, that explore, via the chosen method of recording photographically, the selected environments in their relationship to the absent participants of the situations taking place. The immanent presence of the human element functions as an indirect visual metaphor. In this respect, they predicate the assumption that a movie theater is unsubstantial without film screenings, projectors and viewers; a library without books, a librarian and readers; an auditorium without professors and students; and museums without artifacts, guards and visitors. And on the other hand, they provide an intimate view of the behind the scenes of the institutions when they are closed to visitors. 

Static shots, often frontal by nature of the motif and proportioned (yet other times dramatically leaning in a baroque manner), radiate the artist’s admiration for timeless qualities. A brilliant sense for “framing” scenes with straightened out angles, verticals, and the horizontals of front side walls are in radial balance with the converging lines – ergo, a dynamic shortcut of perspective. Motifs spreading out – in a Renaissance-style harmonic way – onto the entire surface of the image correspond to the sophisticated and abstract subdued color scheme that the author achieves by using natural light. By means of her spatializing methods, she thus translates sizable and deeply receding interiors into two-dimensional fictions. Whereas, at first, she worked with a small camera without a tripod and with a color positive format of 38 x 38 centimeters, she has been exhibiting digital prints several meters in dimension since the turn of the millennium. The format enlarging over a course of time enables one to observe the details of the displayed interiors. Both the older analogue and the newer digital photographs thus describe, via the optics of their time, the architectural style of the selected institutions. Very often, they accentuate the rhythmic segmentation of a surface, or the principle of repetition, which is applied differently. Meanwhile, emanating from the principle of sophisticated accumulation, we also find the crux of administering to spiritual legacies, which we perceive – together with the artist – as the essence of gaining the knowledge necessary for both the present and the future. 

At the same time, repeats likewise contain the process of learning, or, more precisely, the transferring of experience, i.e. the action of inculcating precepts, operations or skills into one’s memory. Every additional encounter with Candida Höfer’s photographs will also lead up to this fact, and their impact will then be multiplied. The artist justifies the creative methods she uses by basing them on her exploration as an artist, for more than thirty years, of the selected localities and their chronophotographic comparison. She enables the viewer to feel the exceptionalness of a moment spent in institutions like these: the grace of their milieux, but also the variety of their inner dispositions.

Zdena Kolečková