Large-format prints, technical perfection and impersonal vision: these are the characteristics of the German photographers commonly known as the Düsseldorf School of Photography, a group of artists that studied with two masters of 20th century photography, Bernd and Hilla Becher – several of them went on to become some of the most successful contemporary artists in the world. Find out more in our curated list of ten German photographers you should know.
A German-American photographic artist, Esther Teichmann grew up in the Rhine Valley and became acquainted with the works of German painters such as Matthias Grunewald and Lucas Cranach early on in his life. Strong themes that characterized their oeuvre – eroticism, violence and imaginary landscapes – largely influenced her artistic production. Nude or semi-nude human bodies plunged in dark atmospheres are prominent in her projects, and serve the purpose of exploring the origins of desire and the relation it has with its traumatic counterpart: loss. Her latest series, Mythologies, does so through the representation of turned-away bodies depicted in imaginary, mythical landscapes.
While not exactly the hottest photographers right now – Bernd actually died in 2007 – no article about German contemporary photography could do away without mentioning husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher. This incredibly influential artist duo started working together at the end of the 1950s, documenting the disappearing industrial architecture (silos, warehouses, furnaces, tanks, cooling towers, and more) throughout Germany in a series of impersonal photographs always taken with the same, clinical approach, and often presented in grids. Masters of the photographic genre of typology, the resonance of their work on international contemporary photography is paramount. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, Bernd Becher taught photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, collaborating with a group of photographers that are now among the world’s most acclaimed (and best-selling) contemporary artists.
In 2011, an image of the river Rhein flowing across fields of green grass, called ‘Rhein II,’ was sold at £2.7m (or $4.3m). It is, to date, the most expensive photograph ever sold. It was taken in 1999 by Andreas Gursky. The print measures a whopping 190x360cm (73x143in) – and indeed, large format is a signature characteristic of this artist, a representative of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, a school that had a huge influence on all of contemporary art. Despite ‘Rhein II,’ Andreas Gursky is best known for his photographs of man-made spaces, such as building facades, supermarket rows, hotel lobbies and stock exchanges, as well as spaces occupied by thick crowds enjoying their leisure time.
Large format and precise, detached vision are also two highlights of Thomas Struth‘s style, another student of the Düsseldorf School of Photography. Struth’s earliest projects include serial images of empty streets in cities like Düsseldorf, Paris, New York and Tokyo. From the mid-1980s, Struth started taking large-scale portraits of families around the world, thus introducing the human element into his work for the first time. Of his most recent series, the most successful and fascinating are his observations of museum visitors viewing the works of art displayed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Pergamon Museum in Berlin or the Museo del Prado in Madrid, a type of image which multiplies the photographic gaze.
The only woman in the Düsseldorf School of Photography group, Candida Höfer is best-known for her series of imposing, large pictures of empty social spaces. Museums, libraries, offices, opera houses – Höfer photographs them all when completely devoid of the human presence, from a high vantage point, and with infallible technical precision. In so doing, Höfer seeks to study those objects and features of a space that make them meaningful as a social environment. Unlike her fellow students at Düsseldorf, Höfer has been invariably consistent throughout her career, both in regards to her chosen subject and her conceptual approach.
While Andreas Gursky looked at man-made environments, Thomas Ruff made portraits, Thomas Struth observed museum crowds, and Candida Höfer captured empty social spaces, Axel Hütte turned to nature. The lesser-known of Düsseldorf School of Photography artists, but no less good, during the first part of his artistic exploration Hütte actually documented house interiors and urban landscapes. From the early 2000s, however, Hütte took to traveling and photographing glaciers, ponds, caves and fog-shrouded mountains, never betraying the impersonal, unemotional approach typical of the Bechers. Far from being photographs of beautiful natural landscapes, Hütte’s images invite the viewer to reflect on the impenetrable, overwhelming mystery of nature.
Although Michael Schmidt died in 2014, his work is destined to remain influential for many future generations of photographers. Schmidt’s death occurred just days after he received the Prix Pictet, a prestigious award recognizing photographic works related to environmental issues. The German photographer was honored with the distinction for his latest project Lebensmittel, an arresting documentary series that chronicles Schmidt’s seven-year-long investigation of the global food industry. A fierce believer of the power of the photographic sequence, Schmidt’s earlier works were mostly dedicated to his hometown, Berlin. Of particular value are his images of the city’s architecture and inhabitants dating to the years before the fall of the Wall.
German-born but Hong Kong-based photographer Michael Wolf is a keen and critical observer of contemporary life in the world’s modern metropolises. His first major personal project, The Real Toy Story, documents the alienating working conditions in Chinese toy factories. The pictures were exhibited on walls completely covered with thousands of small toys similar to the ones produced in those factories. Another well-known series by Wolf, Tokyo Compression, is a compelling series of portraits of Tokyo’s residents pressed up against each other and the windows on a metro train. For Architecture of Density, Wolf took close-up images of Hong Kong’s monstrous skyscrapers, leaving no space for anything else in the frame but the concrete, and no space for the viewer to ‘breathe.’
Thomas Ruff‘s earliest body of work, the series Portraits made in the first half of the 1980s, remains his most popular and striking. It is a series of portraits of individuals aged 25-35, taken in the exact style of a passport picture, but printed at 210x165cm. The large size, the photographer’s cold, neutral approach, the photographs’ serial nature and the inexpressive faces of the subjects make for an impressive body of work in which the human being becomes completely typified, much like Ruff’s teacher in the Düsseldorf School of Photography had previously done with Germany’s industrial architecture. More recent projects by Thomas Ruff – Nudes, zycles and ma.r.s. – are more concerned with exploring the possibilities of the photographic medium and the use of photography on the Internet.
The works of German lens-based artist Barbara Probst challenges Henri Cartier-Bresson’s theory of the ‘decisive moment’ in a major way. Probst’s usual practice consists in placing multiple cameras and tripods – up to 12 at a time – pointing at the same subject from different positions and different perspectives, but all connected to each other so that the shutters are all released at the very same moment. Probst then organizes these images in sequences that offer a refreshing and thought-provoking interpretation of photography and, more generally, the way we ordinarily look at things.