Fotograf Magazine

Photokina and the international photo scene in Cologne

As early as the 1950s and 1960s, well before the emergence of the first festival of photography in Arles, there existed a regularly held event presenting many exhibitions of images from historical and contempora­ry photography – the culture program of Photokina, the world’s largest film and photography fair in Cologne. The fact that since its inception Photokina did not merely present innovations in film and photo technology but also actual photographic work was in large part due to the recently deceased German collector and historian of photography, L, Fritz Gruber, who for many years organized for the fair, both directly at the main site and in Cologne’s numerous museums and galleries, thematic as well as artist-oriented exhibitions of the foremost photograp­hers. After he retired, the cultural program of Photokina experienced once more a heyday during the time when Karl Steinorth was closely involved – the curator of a number of major exhibitions and author of many books on the history of photography. Photokina Cologne thus regularly saw retrospectives of Alfred Stieglitz, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, William Klein, and other famous photographers, richly sponsored by Kodak and Agfa.

The current crisis of many traditional photographic companies that have failed to keep up with the massive advance of digital photography, however, has resulted in a sharp drop in the sponsorship of the cultural side of Photokina. In spite of this, in September 2006 the Photokina Visual Gallery took place already for the third time on the premises of Hall 1 of the much-improved Cologne exhibition area, presenting a num­ber of attractive shows. Exhibitions were also held at other venues during the fair: most noticeable among them were for instance the immense prints of the historical photographs of Karl Hugo Schmolz, portraying the dominants of Cologne destroyed by air raids during the Second World War, the documentary photographs of the Dutch photographer and environmental activist Robert Knoth showing the deadly impact of ill-deposited radioactive waste in Russia on the local people and land­scape, or the Bildeberg agency exhibition, portraying life in contem­porary Germany with gentle irony. The main magnet of the Visual Gallery at Photokina, however, was the new retrospective of Martin Parr, fresh laureate of the Erich Salomon Prize, awarded on the eve of Photokina’s opening by the German Photographic Society (DGP11). Parr compiled his Assorted Cocktail from sections of both older and brand new cycles, in which he with characteristic dry English humor and subtlety showed the typical features of mass tourism, consumerism, globalization, and herd mentality. While the garish details of kitschy souvenirs, chubby tourists and greasy food from Mexico or Germany were close in both motif and style to Parr’s older photographs from England or Spain, his newer images of everyday life in Scotland heralded a return of sorts to his spectral 1980s” England, full of absurd confrontations and visual symbolism. Another exhibition that drew large audiences was Patric Fouad’s Frauenzimmer – Brothels in Germany. These technically precise large-format photographs showed the interior of rooms inhabited by prostitutes in various German cities. Fouad was not seeking titillating views of places normally accessible only to paying customers, but artists. The exhibition of the laureates of the Kodak Prize for young artists was outstanding; almost all the works were technically precise, possessed of a solid concept and functional utilization of color (not one of the prize-winning collections were in black and white), as well as an emphasis on visually attractive rendition of both self-reflective and social subtext. Some works were “staged documentary” that obliterated the boundaries between reality and fiction. Protagonists of this tendency meticulously arranged spectral scenes set in strange rooms in St. Petersburg and Moscow, places with no clear function, where time seemed to be frozen (Frank Herfort), in a nuclear power-station and its vicinity in the Lithuanian town of Visaginas (Martin Schlliter), or in a house where puppets represented family members doing their morning exercises, having breakfast or having sex – and also committing suicide (Grit HachmeisterJ. Among the prize-winning works were also the naturalistic detailed photographs of women during their morning beautification sessions [Malin Schulz and Sina Preikschat], an apt documentary from present-day Armenia (Lili Nahapetian), inventive portraits of Chinese artists from Peking (Tobias Habermann] and other works that proved that many young German and European photographers are moving away from the long dominant influence of Andreas Gursky, Candida Hbfer, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and other famous disciples of Bernd Becher at the Staatliche Akademie in Dusseldorf, and are looking for new themes and new styles.

This was visible also in the international context at the exhibition of 23 university-level schools of photography, Academy Meets Photokina, where a single school from a formerly Communist country was selected -the Institute of Creative Photography of the Silesian University in Opava, represented by works of Czech, Slovak and Polish students. The winning works of the Fujifilm Euro Press Professional Photo Award 2006 were of a rather uneven level of achievement, as alongside works of quality some rather banal sports shots or details of frogs and newts were also honored. Photographs by Eliot Erwitt, Reinhart Wolf, Ernst Haas, Andreas Feininger, and other world-renowned artists were included in the Icon exhibition – 30 photographers of the Association of Freelance Photo Designers, which was however handicapped by the fact that their giant prints were hung all the way up under the exhibition hall ceiling, and few people actually looked at them. Photographs of Charles E. Fraser were a nostalgic reminiscence of the early days of Photokina, capturing as they did exhibition installations at Photokina in the years 1950-1956, which from our vantage point are sometimes unintentionally amusing.

Of the 68 exhibitions of International Photoscene held in various galleries and other venues, among the most interesting this year were above all the retrospective of the American pioneer of conceptual photography and new topography, Ed Ruscha, held at the Ludwig Museum, the extensive, but rather uneven exhibition God in Germany at the Kunsthaus Rhenania, and the exhibition of photographs of the fascinating dehumanized jungle of Hong Kong tenement houses by Michael Wolf (Germany) at the Laif Agency’s exhibition room. German inter-war photography was represented by the impromptu street shots of Friedrich Seidenstucker and little-known reportage photographs by Hannes M. Flach from the car races at Nurburgring. In comparison to the dozens of outstanding exhibitions at the International Photoscene in the 1980s and 1990s, there was little to see this year, and moreover the selection of exhibitions in the official program struck one as rather random. It was evident that the International Photoscene in Cologne is not in its heyday.

Vladimír Birgus