Fotograf Magazine

Great proximity at great distance

It is not customary for a reviewer to start out by referencing the text of a colleague in a different periodical. Still, in writing on the exhibition Distance and Proximity held in České Budějovice, I believe it is necessary to draw attention to an article by Josef Moucha entitled Contemporary German Photography: Distance and Proximity, published in the March issue of the Art & Antiques monthly. Its short scope and brusque style notwithstanding, the author made there abundantly clear both the origin of the presented collection, and the nature of the selection presented in České Budějovice, as well as commenting on the interpretational premises of the German curator Wulf Herzogenrath. Since I find this text in many ways exhausting, I am looking for ways to reflect on the exhibition from different perspective than those mentioned by Mr. Moucha.


Introductory information

Bernd and Hilla Becher, and their graduate students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, Simone Nieweg, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Jörg Sasse, Petra Wunderlich). Selection from the collection and traveling exhibition of the German Institute for Foreign Relations. Presented in Prague first in 1992. Apart from the industrial towers, storage reservoir, and aggregate by the Bechers from the years 1967–1992, it presents works dating to 1984–1991.


Reprise and proximity in provincial circumstances

If the contribution of the reprise of Distance and Proximity after fifteen years is to be given appropriate consideration, one should give due attention to its presentation in the cultural milieu of České Budějovice, and in particular its House of Art.

As for the largest city of South Bohemia, its cultural climate is comparable to most of the larger cities in the Czech provinces. Here, too, the work of the artists on exhibition is relatively well known. It is nonetheless to be wondered how little an awareness of the work of (not only) the Becher school is reflected in the production of local photographers, and the dramaturgy of galleries that are concerned with the presentation of photography. The reprise of the collection of photographs by the Bechers and their students thus disrupts the hegemony of the conservative social documentary and the existential clichés of staged photography. It enters into direct confrontation with the routines of a narrow circle of photographers and the local audience for photography exhibitions. The actual “approximation” to the Becherian ideas of limiting the individual mark, and creating typologies (in the selection of photographed objects as well as in the repetition of the same conventions of representation), or Ruff’s polemic with authorship (in prints taken from scientific photographs of nighttime sky) thus did not lose any important educational value.

Distance and Proximity also supplements the basic concept of the House of Art. Michal Škoda, the gallery’s curator, hereby stubbornly makes come true his dream of an international program anchored in the constructive aspects of contemporary art. The relations between art and architecture, and the practical uses of architectural space and its representations, have often become his focus. He features photography regularly (Günther Förg, Eva Výborná, Pavel Jasanský – Martin Polák, the exhibition Realer Raum, Bild Raum, etc.), and with some exceptions (Michal Tůma) he sticks to the exhibitions having a link to the above-cited horizon of interest. This time, the work of all the featured artists fall within this concept, except for Ruff’s sky photographs mentioned earlier, and one image by Andreas Gursky, showing automobiles loaded for a journey and ferries in the horizon of the port of Geneva.


The discovered, the regurgitated, the inalienable

The exhibition visitor will probably not escape the realization of standing amidst artifacts that have in the last decades changed our notions of the uses of the photographic medium. The sharp edges of the “new look” have been smoothed just as the matter of fact language of the Becher circle has been adopted by thousands of other both artistic and commercial photographers. Roughly two decades after these images were created, it actually becomes important to realize the speed with which the photography business absorbs visual revelations. The emancipation of photography from utilitarian functions does not appear as a linear process in the light of Distance and Proximity. Much rather it appears to be multiple attempts at resuscitation, occurring each time any revelation is regurgitated on the pages of magazines and advertisement catalogues.

At the same time, there come to the fore factors that are inalienable to gallery photography. The size of Ruff’s Stars is huge even by today’s standards (201 x 135 cm). Yet it encompasses only a negligible segment of the night sky, with a scattering of stars and galaxies. On the other hand, only the small formats of the quarry photographs by Petra Wunderlich can guarantee the surprise of discovering the miniatures of giant machines, reevaluating the scale of the recesses carved into the rocks. The triptych by Axel Hütte of the underground then draws our attention to the significance of the frame, which is not merely a safety precaution, but an indispensable bond between visual fields (“long-shot – close-up – long shot”).


Phase one of global culture

The entire collection was purchased by the German Institute for Foreign Relations in 1992, and it has not been expanded since. Furnished with a period catalogue of that time, in 2007 it is a peculiar fossil, preserved and transported in time.

With a distance of time, the works, particularly those of Becher’s students, emerge as the foundation stones of the photographic reading of an urbanized environment. The vistas of public interiors, the details of new buildings (Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte), vegetable plots (Simone Nieweg), and household equipment (Jörg Sasse) are truly pioneering achievements. We have to realize that they were created in Germany in the mid-1980s until the beginning of the 1990s, that is, at a time when the proud West Germany economy found its mission in raising the standard of living. The trend was held up only with the unification of the two German states, i.e., roughly at the time that the series was finished.

And it is equally important to remind ourselves that this period was at the close of the era preceding the universal information revolution, before the dissemination of digital technologies and the Internet.

Whereas Bernd and Hilla Becher surveyed industrial buildings of the past, while essentially all their students focused on the features of contemporary world. They broke loose from the rigorous capturing of the architectural structure as a whole, its central placement in the visual field, and the neutral backdrop. They preferred the fragment, and a concrete backdrop. At the same time they opted for themes that leave no hope for them to bring the topographic activity to a successful close, which in the work of the Bechers is still a latent vanishing point of the work. They were looser in their treatment of de-subjectification of the photographic nude. Yet this did not prevent Thomas Struth in seeking out homogeneous themes in the urban setting of Naples, Chicago and Tokyo, or Candida Höfer to seek similarities in the representative interiors of contemporary public buildings, etc. And it is this maintained interest in the kinship of type and the turn toward the representation of the “new” and the “contemporary” that appealed to a broad circle of followers. Civilization, which in an era of collapsing political blocs started all the better to realize its global dissemination, glimpsed its reflection in creeping urbanization, in places distant from each other becoming ever more alike, the unification of both public spaces and private habitats. Far from realizing the conflicts that lie hidden beneath the similarities, the graduates of the Düsseldorf Academy were able for a short time to become the missionaries of the first phase of the global culture.

Jiří Ptáček