New York

“Six German Photographers”

Sonnabend Gallery

In the ’60s, Bernd and Hilla Becher pioneered a style of documentary photography that, in its informational bent and reliance on serial methodology, was easily identified with other movements in Conceptual art flourishing on both sides of the Atlantic. Their photographs of industrial architecture, presented in grid format, played ceaselessly on the modulations of sameness and difference, prototype and variation. Aside from creating a very substantial photographic corpus, the Bechers have continued to play a prominent role in the (formerly West) German art scene as pedagogues at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie. Serving as the channel through which the documentary tradition of August Sander was passed on to successive generations of German photographers, they did far more than just document industry; they created one.

These six photographers are all Becher students, and it comes as no surpirse that their works reek of the academic salon. One imagines these diligent protégés submitting prospectuses for their work to their mentors. Andi Brenner: “I am documenting hunky German athletes and the occasional mailman against colorful floral wallpaper backgrounds.” Manfred Jade: “I am documenting cemeteries, and perhaps as a future project I will assay the unmarked ones.” Ulrich Gambke: “I am documenting German farm equipment.” Jörg Sasse: “I am documenting the beautiful colors and unexpected formal arrangements to be discovered in ordinary petit bourgeois German bathrooms.” Simone Nieweg: “I am documenting German vegetable gardens.” Boris Becker (alas, not the tennis star): “I am documenting German buildings in a style virtually identical to that of my teachers.” What’s next—rotting plaster? Dead cats? Toenail clippings?

Brenner’s photographs have, at least, the virtue of weirdness. Although he sticks with the documentary format, an ambiguous subjectivity deforms the pretense to neutrality. Conflating Becheresque typology with a quirky erotics, Brenner seems to be asking the viewer, “So, which model is your type?” The tacky backgrounds against which the young men are photographed adds another layer of dissonance, and this deliberate mise-en-scène links his effort to the broad-based international tendency whereby photographers have self-consciously problematized the conventions of their medium and, by extension, those of representation more generally (i.e., Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, et al.). The interface of Brenner’s own slightly tawdry gay sensibility and the Bechers’ patented serialism provides a clue to the nature of the efforts of all these photographers. Though the other series in this show are not as campy as Brenner’s images of lascivious meat puppets, there is something genuinely bizarre in the application of the Bechers’ meticulous yet rote methodology to subjects of often stupefying triviality. Or perhaps it’s not the subjects that are trivial as much as the methodology itself that has become inevitably trivializing. The cemetery photographs hung on one wall are no more or less interesting/beautiful/meaningful than the instruments of agriculture hung on the next. This leveling effect might be annoying were it not so inadvertantly comic.

David Rimanelli