PRINT April 2003


1989: New German Photography

EARLY IN 1989, I was commissioned to write a catalogue essay on two young German photographers who would show at P.S. 1's Clocktower Gallery as part of “Ruhrworks: The Arts of a German Region,” a New York “festival” of arts from the Ruhr Valley in northern Germany. I didn't know either artist: Both men boasted respectable exhibition histories in Europe but were yet to establish an American presence. Andreas Gursky would have his first New York exhibition later that year; Thomas Struth's track record included a one-person show at P.S.1 in 1978 and several group shows over the next decade. So I traveled to Düsseldorf to visit their studios.

I looked forward to seeing the work of these up-and-coming photographers in part because they had studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher at Düsseldorf's Kunstakademie. Well known for creating typological images of industrial structures, the Bechers were respected—almost revered—for the sort of rigorously anti-picturesque photographs that had long been associated with Minimalism and Conceptualism, but the work of their progeny was less known. What, I wondered, would the images of students anointed by the Bechers look like?

The answer was initially disconcerting. The pictures I saw were new to me and yet weirdly familiar. Struth brought out a series of unpopulated, exquisitely detailed urban streetscapes and industrial views, which were printed in black and white at approximately twenty-by-twenty-four inches. One showed the ivy-colored air shaft of a coal mine that looked like an incipient industrial ruin; another displayed a chaotic pastiche of ersatz architectural structures and commercial signs in a spanking-new mall. Gursky was working with color prints of about the same size and looked at the uneasy relationship between generic modern architecture and the German landscape. Most of his images contained people—a lone man dwarfed by a towering bridge, a scattering of students in a coldly minimal university plaza—although one rural scene was simply an expanse of brown grass dotted with chickens.

The Bechers' emphasis on photography as an objective, informational practice was a clear influence. But the subject matter and methodologies also reminded me of America photographers largely ignored by the art establishment, which had carefully segregated photography during the '60s and early '70s, valuing only images made in the service of stringently Conceptualist ends. People such as Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams had gained notice during a short-lived photo boom in the mid- to late '70s, but this was largely confined to the photography world that revolved around the New York galleries Light, Castelli Graphics, and Witkin, and the Museum of Modern Art's photography department. The end of that boom coincided with a new challenge to the subjective, expressive possibilities of photography implicit in the strategies of irony, appropriation, and pastiche introduced by the “Pictures” artists. Once again, there was a world of difference between artists who “used” photography (to critique representation) and mere photographers (the ones who made representations).

”In the work of Gursky and Struth, however, the gap seemed to narrow. The images were certainly informed by the Bechers' typological training, but Gursky and Struth were photographing scenes. They seemed to draw not only on Becherian neutrality but also on American topographic photography—which stands to reason, since the Bechers exposed their students to the work of photographers like Shore, Baltz, and Adams. Indeed, the Bechers exhibited with the Americans in a landmark 1975 exhibition at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, titled “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape.”

These links were effaced, though, when Gursky and Struth showed in New York in 1989, and the omission was perpetuated throughout the ‘90s. Critics invariably limited the two men's sources to the work and pedagogical philosophy of the Bechers, applauding the “non-expressive” use of the medium and documentary “realism.” Such writers ignored the fact that those were also hallmarks of '70s American photography. Only recently has this artistic history been restored, in catalogue essays for the two photographers’ traveling American retrospectives.

Of course, both artists have reached well beyond their early influences. Their large-scale photographs engage both the viewer's eyes and body, demanding that one consciously locate a position in relation to the image rather than just take it in at a glance, giving photography the kind of stopping power previously reserved for painting. That turn is often recapitulated in the photos' subjects. Approaching Struth's museum pictures, for example, viewers jockey for the perfect perspective from which to contemplate the welter of tourists who search for ideal viewpoints of the monuments of Western art. For Gursky, the spectacle of capitalism—its sites of shopping, money trading, and sporting rituals—provides the panoramas before which we seek our subjective niches. This is the pair's greatest achievement, and one I glimpsed on that visit to Germany: to reveal the modern world's often confounding patterns, structures, and spaces, and to use the photograph to question our relationship to them.

Carol Squiers is a curator at the International Center of Photography, New York.