New York

Candida Höfer

Nicole Klagsbrun

Like the work of other, perhaps better-known students of Bernd and Hilla Becher, such as Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer’s photographs perpetuate the shock of banality that is the leitmotiv of the conceptual style of photography that evolved in Germany during the ’70s. There is nothing remarkable about the public places Höfer subjects to photographic scrutiny. The lecture halls, libraries, auditoriums, lobbies, restaurants, and museums she selects are not indexed with a particular eye toward their significance as tyrannical administrative forms. No historical value justifies her selection of sites, no profound realism penetrates the veneer of familiarity that blankets these quotidian spaces, nor do her shots serve as epithets designed to comment on the bland emptiness of contemporary life.

On the other hand, Höfer’s public places are noticeably devoid of inhabitants and nuanced with melancholy and alienation. Neatly made beds are unoccupied at the Kuranlage Bad in Hamburg, lecture halls at the Sorbonne in Paris and University College of Law in London are empty, and there are no scholars at Trieste’s Biblioteca Civica or guests at Xanten’s Hotel Bebber. Pisa’s Campo Santo is occupied only by row after row of empty pink plastic chairs. As though it were Höfer’s private joke, she occasionally gives us a figure or two: a replica of the Laocoön crowded amidst scores of other classical casts at the Akademisches Kunstmuseum at Bonn University, two discomforting plaster mannequins installed in hermetic glass display cases of computer equipment at the Deutsches Museum in Munich, a collection of stuffed lions and tigers at London’s Natural History Museum, and a token real person in the form of an anonymous waiter in the waiting room at the Cologne train station. But these constitute only minor intrusions in the self-contained lives of undemonstrative places. Despite the emptiness of interiors that should be bustling with activity, there is a palpable sense of humanity that derives in part from the persistent presence of the photographer.

Ambiguity is essential to Höfer’s methodology. Though her clean, utilitarian approach is amplified by the strict placement of chairs and tables as well as by the immaculate shiny surfaces she apparently relishes, and containment is emphasized by the consistent manner in which she frames her interiors from floor to ceiling, Höfer makes no claims to objectivity. At the same time, she never sacrifices the object of her inquiry to an overbearing formalism. Sometimes her compositions are slightly off center, in other instances the play of light is favored over schematic architectural detail.

The series of displacements suggested by the disparate photographic traditions from which she borrows — documentary, commercial, snapshot—and the flaws in her simple and unpretentious style, return us to the places she haunts. Testifying to decades of use, in Höfer’s work the purity of architectural style is contaminated by the very humanity it was designed to serve. Institutional furniture and ugly ’60s lighting fixtures clash with the beautifully vaulted ceiling at the Cologne train station. Double rows of red and blue plaid chaise longues violate the black and white harmony of a Modernist interior at the Kurmittelhaus (spa) in Wenningstedt, obliterating the impact of its sweeping circular staircase. The discordance produced by contemporary benches, boxy display cabinets, and horrible plumbing fixtures, insensitively installed amidst the Romanesque arches and ornamental stonework at the London Natural History Museum, is of the sort that we so quickly edit out of our experience of such places that our sense of these details remains virtually unconscious; yet Höfer is sympathetic to precisely these ruptures. It is perhaps an aspect of her laconic sense of humor that we begin to appreciate these sacrifices to function as the humanizing qualities of otherwise alienating places. If that is the case, the perception creates only a subtle ripple, for Höfer never privileges the kitschy and quaint over the matter-of-fact. It is the distinctive mark of Höfer’s conceptual realism that while she accepts the process of history as benign, she makes no attempt to mask its inherent struggles.

Jan Avgikos