When photographers Bernhard and Hilla Becher began their collaboration in 1959, they markedly turned away from the work of the leading German photographer Otto Steinert, who had been a proponent of a subjective approach using blurred figures in motion, reverse exposure and other experimental techniques. Rather, the Bechers took inspiration from the older German tradition of the Neue Sachlichkeit – the New Objectivity – of the 1920s, particularly the work of photographers such as August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Their work was styled akin to a documentary, based on an objective vision of all levels of German society.
From 1976 to 1996 the pair held posts at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. They worked together for over 50 years and produced over 20,000 images. The Becher style focused on images of industrial and utilitarian rural structures such as silos, water-towers, lime kilns, timber-framed barns, and warehouses, developed in black-and-white. Multiple small photos of the same building would be arranged into a grid, each photo offering a slightly different vision of the structure. This typological method drew attention to the precise forms visible in each photo, showing their differences and similarities in the sequence – the style is dispassionate, impersonal and focused on nothing beyond the visible forms of the image itself.
The Bechers were also influenced by Marcel Duchamp and his ‘readymades’ of the 1910s onwards. Duchamp’s utilitarian items presented as works of art – such as a urinal, bottle-rack, and a shovel – were granted equal reverence to that of great paintings. Duchamp pioneered a more cerebral approach to art and he inspired both Conceptualism and Minimalism. Conceptual Art in the hands of artists such as Sol LeWitt and Joseph Kossuth emerged in the 1960s and aimed to remove the external content and subject matter of art in order to explore the form of the subject itself. Minimalism emerged in opposition to the subjectivism of stressed objective, geometric forms and neutral surfaces. The aesthetic of the Bechers was inspired by and formed part of these movements – their first monograph was entitled Anonymous Sculptures in homage to Duchamp.
Whilst the Bechers held official positions at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1976, the academy was a centre for innovation and creativity long before. In 1961, Joseph Beuys was named Professor of Sculpture – he was a pioneer and avant-garde figure in art theory, installation and performance art. Gerhard Richter, the leading German painter and sculptor of the second half of the century, was also a Professor at the Kunstakademie from 1971. Figures such as Sigmar Polke and Anselm Kiefer were connected to the Kunstakademie, whilst the leading American Conceptual pioneers Richard Serra and Michael Asher visited and gave talks in Düsseldorf.
The key names at the centre of the Düsseldorf School today include Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Axel Hütte. All current artists worked and studied under the Bechers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in the 1970s and 1980s and several have subsequently returned to teach there themselves. Gursky was a student from 1981 to 1987 and is now a Professor; Struth initially studied painting under Gerhard Richter from 1973 before shifting to photography and the tutelage of the Bechers in 1976; Höfer was at Kunstakademie from 1973 to 1982; Hütte from 1973 until 1981, and Thomas Ruff from 1977 until 1985.
These facets derived from their teachers, the Bechers, but all of the photographers have their own idiosyncratic style. Axel Hütte creates magical, beautiful images of natural landscapes such as forests and mountains and enhances the compositional elements in a way similar to abstract painting. Thomas Ruff has created portraits of emotionless faces, images of houses, nudes taken from pornography and made images from heavily pixelated jpegs. Candida Höfer, conversely, focuses on building interiors and the space within. Her photos focus on depopulated libraries, opera houses, and zoos.
Gursky presents extraordinary, almost sublime images of man-made structures and environments from an elevated perspective. Office blocks, trading floors, factory production lines and apartments, are all transformed through his lens. Struth is known in the UK for his 2011 royal commission to photograph the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. His work has focused on family portraits, deserted streetscapes in Düsseldorf and on scenes captured from within museums. When considering the latter, one might think of his depiction of the Pantheon in Rome, the Berlin Pergamon and the Prado, portraying visitors gazing at artworks, who themselves become an artwork through the photographs.
In Germany, the Düsseldorf School has been perhaps the most significant artistic movement since Bauhaus. The School were vital in rehabilitating the reputation of photography as an artistic medium following WWII. The lasting legacy of the School has been to elevate the reputation of photography to equal that of painting. Conceptualism stressed the importance of airing the intellectual side to art and photography, as Bernd Becher said: ‘it was important for our students to be made aware that they were doing something which was totally the equal in merit to painting’. By the 1980s, leading galleries were building major photographic collections and hosting exhibitions. Photography today is experiencing an all-time high – in 2012, the National Gallery in London held their first major photographic exhibition, with one of the key contributors being Thomas Struth.
The rise in the prestige of photography has been demonstrated by the fact that Rhine II sold at Christie’s in New York in November 2011 for £2.7 million, or $4.3 million. The image – the second of a series of six depicting the Rhine – became the most expensive photo ever sold. In the piece, the Rhine runs horizontally across the image, with fields in the foreground and the sky stretching above, forming three horizontal bands of color. It might be read as a modern take on the German preoccupation with the Romantic landscape in the 19th century, reminiscent of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich.
The Professional Photographer magazine put forward in 2011 the theory that the Düsseldorf School had effectively killed off photography. They argued that the work of the group leaves the observer cold, that it presents no opinion, no personality. Moreover, the editorial in the Professional Photographer suggested the Düsseldorf School had made photography easy by focusing on the mundane and the everyday, so that anyone today can pick up a camera and believe they are producing great art. The Bechers began as innovative trailblazers attempting to find new ways of looking at and observing objects not previously thought to be worthy of art and contemplation . Whatever the verdict, the Düsseldorf School left an undeniable impact and the legacy needs careful guarding.