Fotograf Magazine

Photokina and the Internationale Photoszene Köln

Even since its beginnings shortly after the end of WWII, a large part of Photokina, the largest trade fair in the world dealing with photography and film technology, has paid considerable attention to culture. Many photographic exhibitions have been held in  various of  Cologne’s museums and galleries in addition to the fairgrounds themselves. Photokina was the first unofficial photography festival, underway long before the International Photography Congress at Arles. Even though long-time cultural director of Photokina L. Fritz Gruber retired in the early 1980s (he went out with the ‘Imaginaray Photomuseum,’ a magnificent exhibition he was able to put together out of the most important works taken from dozens sof collections from all over the world), it was always possible to see a wide variety of excellent exhibitions of present as well as past photography both at Photokina and the simultaneous Internationale Fotoszene, generously sponsored by companies devoted to photography with Kodak and Agfa foremost among them. However, Kodak has been experiencing serious economic difficulties lately and, as if that were not enough, Karl Steinhort, legal director of Kodak’s operations in Germany and head curator and author of a number of books on the history of photography, passed away recently. Over the last few years Steinhort made it possible for countless many to see important exhibitions at Photokina put together from the prestigious collection at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester. Thus, anyone looking forward last September to extensive retrospectives of the work of world-famous photographers (previous years saw exhibitions on Alvin Langdon Coburn, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Richard Avedon, Mary Ellen Mark and Helmut Newton and his wife Alice Springs) or thematic exhibitions was bound to be disappointed.

The organisers of Photokina, in collaboration with the German Association of Free-Lance Photo Designers (BFF) and other partners,  set up the Photokina Visual Gallery on the fairgrounds and another 84 photography exhibitions were organised within the framework of the 16th Internationale Fotoszene in various of Cologne’s museums, galleries, cultural institutions, schools, banks and even  in  private  homes; nevertheless, there was no photographic sensation,  no  exhibition which will people will be talking about for years as was the case with the legendary Imaginary Photomuseum, in Cologne this year. Nonetheless, there was an abundance of high-quality photography on display.  At the Photokina Visual Gallery itself, the greatest attraction  was the star German fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, with ‘Invasion,’ an exhibition which was doubtless a challenge to stage –and costly as well— of photographs taken for the Italian edition of Vogue capturing male and female models in various tableaux with extraterrestrial themes evoking the atmosphere a Hollywood thriller. Most of the exhibitions displayed the more or less creative forms of today’s commercial photography, whether this meant a display of automobile advertising images, a review of the work of professional German photographers, or ‘Women of L’Oreal,’ in which a well-known fashion magazine presented a rather conventional series of pictures of beautiful women. The most significant exception to this trend was the pleasantly refreshing review of the work of 21 winners of the Kodak young photographers award. Two groups of students from the Institute for Creative Photography at Opava were quite able to hold their own among them: the suggestive self-portraits of Dita Pepe masquerading as women of varying ages from a wide scope of social backgrounds with the help of wigs, make up and an authentic wardrobe (see photo no. 1), and the cycle titled ‘Ústí nad Labem / Aussig’ by Jan Vac, who  made a photomontage of historical and contemporary images of Ústí nad Labem resulting in a series of powerful visual symbols relating to the historical changes this northern Czech town has gone through. Many good photographs were on display at an exhibition dedicated to five winners of the Reinhart Wolf award, which is given to the best graduation projects of German photography schools (it is a shame that there is no such analogous award with the consequent showcase it could offer of what is being produced today at Czech schools with independent photography programs). Other areas of the fairgrounds were taken up by the winning photographs of the World Press Photo photojournalism contest, humanitarian images from Reporters without Frontiers and an anthology of the winners of a young German photojournalist contest over the last decade.

However, wheras the cultural exhibitions at the fairgrounds were basically in keeping with previous years at Photokina, the exhibitions organised at Cologne’s museums and galleries were for the most part disappointing. Not even the Ludwig Museum, with its two world-famous photography collections, prepared any photographic treats. Its exhibition of different types of camera obscura, kaleidoscopes and other instruments from the early days of photography and cinematography would have been more appropriate at a technical museum than at one of the best museums of modern art in the world. Particularly ponderous was an exhibition of descriptive architectural and landscape photographs by one of the pioneers of new German new pragmatism, Albert Renger-Patzsche, at the Mediapark SK cultural foundation. The exhibition did not contain any of his modern work, well known from his book The World is Beautiful (1928), but rather second- rate, barren work from the collection of architect Fritz Schupp. Among several historical exhibitions, the most interesting were a retrospective of work by the Russian typographer and author of Constructivist and Socialist Realist collages Solomon Telingater from the period between WWI and WWII at the Gmurzynska Gallery, and another by German avante-garde photographer Heinz Hajek-Halke at the Priska Pasquer Gallery, which put on display a number of original prints of his experimental nudes,  photomontages  and  abstract  ‘light  graphics.’  A series of high-quality, albeit oft-published photos by four classic photographers –Ilse Bing, Edouard Boubat, Frank Horvat and Willy Ronis— was on display at the Galerie am Dom. Contemporary photography was presented mostly at small exhibitions in commercial galleries or foreign cultural institutes. Among the best of them were an exhibition of the self-reflexive photographs of Jack Pierson at the Aurel Scheibler Gallery, a series of documentary pictures and portraits out of the former Soviet Union by Eric Vazzolero at the French Institute and a collection of ghostly color photographs depicting empty cement interiors by Ari Saart at the Licthblick Gallery. There were not many large exhibitions dedicated to the photography of today, but one of them is worth mentioning: a review of documentary photos made by the young recipients of grants from the firm Wüstenrot, in which cool descriptive color images of dehumanised architectural subjects prevailed, owing a lot of their inspiration to the work of Andreas Gursk˘, Thomas Struth and other successful students of Bernd Becher at the Academy of Art in Düsseldorf who have gone on to make names for themselves across the globe. All in all, however, there was rather little that was really memorable at the extensive photography festival this year.

Vladimír Birgus