The Düsseldorf School of Photography

Bernd and Hilla Becher
INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo

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During the 1980s, a particular group of German photographers broke into the global artistic field. And they all learned their drills at the now-famous Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. But most importantly, they all were apprentices (or disciples) of Bernhard (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015). These two refined the existent visual language laid on photography and turned it against the pictorial pretensions they still witnessed embedded in the craft.

Similar to what happened in the United States with the efforts of the Group f/64, the Bechers aimed to retrieve the objective aura photography was born with. In 1959, these highly committed contributors started photographing their surroundings. Even today, people long for distant and exotic locations to travel to use their cameras; so their focus is still considered bold to us!

Their interest in the unique landscape that derived from humanity, led them into aiming their large format cameras at the industrial venues surrounding their lives. They photographed in a purely objective aesthetic several structures and found great similarities and subtle differences, just like how humanity behaves. The documentary result was an impeccable taxonomy of how our species interferes with what we could all understand as territories nowadays.

Usually, the Düsseldorf School tag is linked to 5 photographers we will revise in a moment, which are Candida Höfer (1944-), Axel Hütte (1951-), Thomas Struth (1954-) and Andreas Gursky (1955-). Although, we think there are some other interesting influences worth mentioning too like László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) from the Bauhaus School and Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) from the New Objectivity art movement.

The Importance of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933)

Photography, as any other sociocultural practice, inevitably depends on the changing nature of History. And if we are willing to understand the “bigger picture” about this interesting moment, then we should make a stop on what developed under the former Weimar Republic between World Wars I & II.

Considered as a technological discipline rather than an artistic activity, photography was an ideal form of expression for the speed-obsessed society of the early twentieth century. Slowly, photography started detaching from the pictorial aspirations imposed by the format early adopters and gained strength as objective activity. Even nowadays, the word “photograph” is used as a metaphor for analyzing reality with an unbiased framework.

In 1919, Walter Gropius established the Staatliches Bauhaus, and the intellectual realm that blended aesthetics with functionalism began a tradition that still echoes in our days. With the aid of certain Russian constructivist artists, photography became adopted as an ideal format for the post-revolutionary society that was set up during those days. Although distant from the constructivist movement, one of those artists was the one and only, Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), but that’s a story for another day.

The photographic efforts that started developing within the Bauhaus highlighted the visual capabilities offered by chemistry and optics. And by doing that, humanity was empowered to see in still-impossible ways for our eyes and brains to record. Freezing time, long-exposures, and optical illusions produced by combining optics with particular points of view are just some of the results produced by cameras with virtually non-existent technical efforts.

The standard rules of photographic composition became strongly challenged when photographers gained recurrent contact with the design principles from the Bauhaus and the resulting aesthetic derived from it. An aesthetic filled with an objective spirit aimed to document reality without superfluous tricks. And under these principles, spectators were believed to be emancipated from the subjective visions of photographers or the compositional strategies imposed to gain attention from the people.

The main (and perhaps only) role photographers had, was to enhance appreciation of an object by reproducing it in realistic detail. And this was better achieved when the main object was placed at the very centre of the frame while leaving little to no room for subjective interpretations. And if symmetry was possible to achieve, much better the results were of course.

And although each of the following artists has particularly well-defined styles, the aesthetic principle of honest objectivity broke through the Düsseldorf School of Photography in the years to come.

The Inherited Legacy of The Bechers

Talking about the Düsseldorf School without mentioning Bernd & Hilla Becher would be a mistake. The influence of these two in the photographic practice of the late twentieth century, both through their visual typologies and education, was huge. They are now very well known for triggering one of the major aesthetic frameworks in contemporary photography. Such a paradigm blends the deadpan aura with the aforementioned direct tradition inherited from the Bauhaus and the New Objectivity.

Nowadays, the Bechers are considered huge pioneering figures. But when they were starting, they were under-seen by other photographers which didn’t validate what they were both doing. But time was generous with their ideological convictions and their legacy is now deeply rooted in one of the most influential photography collectives known today, the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Although, and maybe we had to start there in the first paragraphs, the Düsseldorf School of Photography (which was more of an informal appendix of the Kunstakademie) isn’t exactly a school but a collective of photographers who studied in the mid-1970s under their influence and guidance.

Their direct aesthetic is highly objective and was built with straightforward monochromatic photographs of industrial structures like water and cooling towers, coal tipples, gas holders, and even domestic architecture (or well, houses). These images are now considered to be documentary, design-oriented, and even conceptual art.

From here on, the Becher influence will be highly present so we’ll try to not over-mentioning them.

The Vibrant Perfection in Candida Höfer’s Architecture

The direct spirit instilled by her teachers is notoriously rich in her. However, Höfer’s interest makes her take the camera inside the places that trigger her attention the most. Her images give us a different look at what the pioneering couple started with their typological work on industrial architectures. In 1968, she began working in newspapers as a portrait photographer and from 1970 as an assistant of Werner Bokelberg. Later on, she attended the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where she studied film and photography.

Candida Höfer is considered one of the first disciples of the Bechers to ever use color. With her large-format images, she aims to capture the psychological residues left behind in empty public and institutional spaces like libraries, hotels, and theatres. And if you are interested in architectural photography, then her work is a must. Her meticulous approach to composition places herself in the ultimate centre of the venues to portray, resulting in impeccable symmetry but vibrantly and colorfully.

In short, we can say that her images aim to capture the indelible spirit that inhabits spaces where culture is supposed to flourish and reside. These places, often absent of human elements, give each piece an eerie monumentality. “Spaces may or may not invite the image; if they do, they mostly do it with their spatial layers of time,” she said once in her work. “It is then the image that takes the place of the space; the image in its own right.”

The Restless Images of Axel Hütte

Best known for his long-exposure night-time landscapes, his photographs tell us a story of a foreign planet, void from humanity, that exists within our world. Similarly to Höfer, his images capture the soul from barren landscapes witnessed by his camera. In his landscape works, he works with emptiness, avoiding any possible sign of civilization or narrative indication that could give away that he is dealing with our planet. Perception and awakening the fantasy or imagination of the beholder is his aim.

Earth, forests, heaven, and water, are all-natural ingredients we can easily find in his eerie landscapes. Nature has always been the subject of multiple interests among human beings, but the way how nature appears will depend only on one’s particular gaze. As societies evolve, our global vision becomes emotional but also regretful, and we tend to long for intact environments that could escape from our destructive nature.

In his photographs, dune formations dissolve into the horizon like a single element on the frame, and old treetops appear as abstract surfaces. His landscapes are not mere snapshots but meticulous compositions that become pleasingly attractive in the eyes of the beholders.

The Impeccable Venues of Thomas Struth

Highly known for his approach towards nature, machinery, architecture, and contemporary life, his photographs open the doors towards the act of looking. Especially human achievements such as CERN and Museums. Throughout his frames, he blends both chaos and industrial order. His photographs are characterized by their subtle color and extreme attention to detail, which, because of their large size format, deliver a mesmerizing effect.

Originally, he studied painting with Gerhard Richter. And his earliest photographs, black-and-white cityscapes of Düsseldorf, were made to aid his painting. The airless and static images bore a striking similarity to the images of industrial structures the Bechers were creating. And in a 1976 exhibition of student work, he displayed his work in a grid, as the couple had been doing since the 1960s.

Even though he was still studying with Richter and had not yet seen the Bechers’ work. Following that exhibition, it became clear to Struth that he was not interested in painting, and he joined the first photography class being offered at the Kunstakademie. His first experiments in color happened around 1980, and by the middle of the decade, he stopped exhibiting his work in grids and turned into hanging each print as an individual work.

The Breathtaking Nonexistent Places of Andreas Gursky

Gursky is equally hated and loved by many due to his work success within the murky waters of the art trade. Beyond that controversy, we can recognize that his work has a unique style that makes us think broadly. From thoughts around “why is this art?” to understand the utopian spirit behind his large-format digitally-processed images, made to achieve an ideal set by the author.

Perhaps he is the best-selling photographer nowadays, and one of the most successful artists from the contemporary photography world. After he finished his studies, he continued to develop his voice in the medium and eventually gained fame among critics. In the late 1980s, he began enlarging images in what is known as mural sizes, which is part of his style too. In 1992, he began discovering the possibilities that digital images could offer and has worked with him ever since. He applies his vision of the apparent banality of non-places through digital media in post-production.

The short accessible perspective in many of his works often offers an elevated point of view that allows the viewer to see another perspective on everyday life situations, such as his famous “99 Cent II” image. He is drawn to large, anonymous, man-made spaces such as office lobbies, bag floors, and the inside of large box retailers. You will need to meditate a lot when looking at his images, and you will probably have to revisit them from time to time to also understand the concept behind his vast portraiture efforts of globalization.

Gursky has skyrocketed the art market by selling not one, but two of the most expensive photographs ever recorded in history. His photograph “Rhein II” sold for $4,338,500 at Christie’s, New York on November 8, 2011, and in 2013 Chicago, “Board of Trade III” (1999-2009) was sold for 2.2 million pounds.

These two are solid examples for discussing the value of art in our time, but when contrasted with other formats like painting or sculpture, they are quite modest indeed. And of course, we are aware of the shady economic structures within the art market, but we won’t cover that today.

Wrapping it Up

In a nutshell, the pioneering couple of this discipline had a strong thesis based on the encyclopedic and scientific concept of typologies. Common aesthetic characteristics of artists from the Düsseldorf school are diffuse light, frontal views, and elevated views. Metaphysical elements of these works could be objectivity, coldness, and documentary photography.