Photography today: an assessment of the current situation
“It’s clear that younger artists feel that they have to go elsewhere – toward more overtly visible and mannered digital work, smaller scale, studio work involving various kinds of hand crafting, and of course dealing with the online image traffic question.”
(Jeff Wall, 2018)
Is photography a contemporary medium?
As surprising and perhaps even coquettish as this question may seem (after all, it is being asked within the framework of an art prize dedicated exclusively to this one pictorial form), it is indeed justified – especially from a historical perspective. And this is precisely what is needed if one wishes to attempt to determine the position of contemporary photography in a well-founded and comprehensible way.
In view of the fact that the number of photographically produced images has risen rapidly in the last two decades, this question may come as a surprise. Every year, millions of photos are shot. It is said that 1.2 billion new photos were taken in 2017 alone. The question as to how this number was determined remains unanswered. In any event, however, the number of photographs is in fact so large that it becomes irrelevant whether we put them in categories of billions or even trillions – it remains unfathomable. + read more
Digital photography and its consequences
The enormous quantitative growth of photographic images is undoubtedly linked to the development and use of digital techniques. While in the 1970s roll film was still used and the SLR camera was triggered with caution, today it is possible to shoot wildly with almost no restrictions, whereby the ballistic metaphor may never have been as appropriate as it is today. Everything remains in one hand, namely in the hands of the producers themselves. For they operate, which is almost the exception again, a digital camera or, which happens in at least 85% of all cases, the integrated camera of a smartphone. And after processing the image in a commercially available image program, the printer takes over the ‘development’ of the image – provided a materialization of the image is desired at all.
Starting from the original cell phone, the rapidly advancing technology of miniaturization and the combining of various functions within one device has led to a significant increase in both the storage space and the optical quality of smartphone cameras. A few years ago, Lewis Baltz, who originally became famous for his documentary photography, commented wittily that he could now finally make phone calls with his new camera. In short, the talk of the flood of images is astonishingly old, but the vehemence it has gained through the introduction of digital photography is historically unprecedented. Contrary to popular doomsday diagnoses (‘the death of photography’ etc.), one can rightly claim that the digital age is also an age of photography.
Following these introductory remarks, the question as to the contemporaneity of photography seems all the more absurd. It is thus necessary at this point to clarify what is meant by this: since, up to now, the talk has been about the everyday use and application of photography. ‘Photography’ is, however, a collective term. There are different types, uses, and functions of photography. In the context of the present text, the focus shall now solely be on the artistic form of photography – which is not associated with any valuation. For art is not a ‘higher’ form of photography, but only a particular one, with which other forms are automatically excluded. This also applies to the structure of the discourse itself, which, depending on the function of the respective photograph, simply brings other questions to the fore.
Unsecure terrain: fluid boundaries to other photographic genres
Notwithstanding this need for differentiation, it must be clear: In individual cases, the boundaries to other photographic genres are fluid, and their permanent questioning can even represent a determined drive by artists and photographers who strive to dissolve these boundaries. Wolfgang Tillmans, for example, successfully worked on this in the 1990s. And although some institutions have meanwhile conveyed a different image, it can be said that Jürgen Teller was less successful in this respect and at best remained on the border between fashion photography and art. + read more
But when is a photo an artistically relevant image?
But when is a photo an artistically relevant image? Since this question cannot be answered with a simple sentence, we shall approach the phenomenon ex negativo. What is certain is that it is not a question of technique and photographic equipment. Whether the artists use a large-format or plate camera, or a smartphone does not matter at first. Equally irrelevant for the determination of the predicate ‘artistic’ is the aspect of printing technology. And, to be honest, who can tell the difference between a C-print and an inkjet print if one is not equipped with conservational resources? Let us thus conclude: An image is certainly not artistically important because it was created using a particular technique that would sufficiently ennoble it.
A next step would be the question of the location and context of the presentation. Here, we come closer to a possible answer, since it is the institutions that are designated as such – for example, art museums, photo museums, history museums, galleries, etc. – which provide the criteria for the definition of a particular classification. Put simply, one should be able to assume that the images presented in an art museum also have artistic significance. (The fact that institutions – or their employees – can also be wrong would be a further topic, but one that does not necessarily have to be pursued on a fundamental level).
The role of institutions in the definition of artistic photography
Faith in the authority of the institution is now a very convenient answer, especially when given in this very context. Why can these representatives of the institutions, perhaps well-trained in the history of the image, claim something like this in the first place? Contrary to a widespread assumption, the answer is surprisingly that much easier in the age of digitalization, because, here, a mental motif has been radicalized, which we can also discover much earlier in art and its history of reception: Just as abstract painting changed the general understanding of what a painting can be, a similar paradigm shift took place with regard to photography roughly eighty years later. The artistic photograph as such no longer exhausts itself in its mimetic function. It should now at the very latest be clear that art is about more or less ‘autonomous’ images. Both the ‘truth’ and the ‘reality’ of artistic photography are by no means limited to a mimetic function. Even if it were just as naïve to deny an unrestricted reference to external reality, the significance of the pictorial motif must be examined in each individual case – and this is precisely the task of the institution.
Before we now turn to the immediate present, the twenty-first century, let us first of all determine the presuppositions of the present. The following brief developmental history pursues the various questions with regard to the current situation: How and when did photography arrive in the art discourse? And what forms of reception and artistic tendencies have developed as a result of this?
What has happened thus far
What could be the subject of a comprehensive book – a truly satisfying history of artistic photography has surprisingly not yet been published – is sketched here rather simplistically: Let us take a brief look at the significance of photography in twentieth century art – with a focus on developments in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Photography in Europe up to 1945
Generally speaking, the history of artistic photography in Europe differs greatly from that in the USA. Whereas, on the other side of the Atlantic, one can observe a more or less continuous confrontation between art and photography, in Europe, after a very intensive period in the 1920s, it experienced a profound caesura in the decade that followed. The one-sided functionalization of photography as a means of propaganda in the totalitarian systems of the 1930s and ’40s radically interrupted the artistic development of the medium. This can be named concretely in a few examples: The careers of the pioneers August Sander, Umbo, and Albert Renger-Patzsch, who were already artistically recognized in the 1920s, thus came to an end under National Socialism. Karl Blossfeldt and Aenne Biermann died and were also forgotten until the 1970s. Following his activities in the Central European avant-garde, Alexander Rodchenko returned to the USSR. And important photographers such as André Kertesz, Herbert Bayer, László Moholy-Nagy, and Man Ray emigrated to the United States during the Second World War – and Germaine Krull to Brazil and Africa. At the same time, the American Berenice Abbott exported large parts of Eugène Atget’s estate to her home country, where she promoted its reception. + read more
The “rediscovery” of photography as an art form following the Second World War
With regard to artistic photography in Germany, a ‘new beginning’ after the Second World War was only quite hesitantly possible. Otto Steinert (subjective photography), Hilla and Bernd Becher (documentary photography), and Gottfried Jäger (concrete or generative photography) must be named as central figures in the attempt to achieve a renewed artistic emancipation of photography. At first, however, they did not achieve enough resonance in the art context and got stuck in the small circles of friends of photography. This only changed slowly in the 1970s, when, in 1972, ‘documenta V’ integrated photography more strongly, in particular within the context of conceptual art.
Similar observations can also be made in the gallery system of the time – without which a social rediscovery of artistic photography could not have succeeded. The first German photo gallery opened in Cologne under the name Album Fotogalerie; from 1973 on, it operated under the name of its founders, Galerie Wilde. After a three-year prelude by Galerie Clarissa (1965–68), the Spectrum Fotogalerie followed in Hanover, a non-commercial exhibition space. Another year later, Rudolf Kicken and the photographer Wilhelm Schürmann opened the Gallery Lichttropfen in Aachen, which was continued by Kicken alone and under a new name in Cologne from 1979 onward.
The turning point 1977: documenta VI
The actual social establishment of photography then took place in 1977 with ‘documenta VI’, at which art historian Evelyn Weiss, together with Klaus Honnef, set up an independent photography section for the first time. What is significant here is that not only contemporary positions were shown there. Rather, the buried historical knowledge of the history of photography apparently made it necessary to expand that section of photography into a historical overview. Analogous to ‘documenta I’, which in 1955 dealt with the painting and sculpture of classical modernism previously defamed as ‘degenerate’, photographs of the nineteenth century were also shown in 1977.
In 1976, the first professorship for artistic photography at a German art academy was established in Düsseldorf and almost simultaneously occupied by Bernd Becher. This was a far-reaching step that was later taken at other art schools and academies as well. And a lot was also happening on the museum side during this time: Parallel to ‘documenta VI’, a photographic department was founded in the newly spun-off Museum Ludwig in Cologne, which was followed one year later by the Folkwang Museum in Essen. The existing activities in Hamburg (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe) and Berlin (especially the workshop for photography initiated by Michael Schmidt) were also spurred on by this. During this time, the still tender little plant of photography also received further attention through several institutional exhibitions.
The “Becher-class” from Düsseldorf: A success story
It was not until the 1990s, however, that the widespread boom in photography took hold. It was essentially forced by the art scene in the Rhineland. The most notable among this scene are Jürgen Klauke, Bernhard Johannes and Anna Blume, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter, who were and, in some cases, still are active in Cologne, as well as the Düsseldorf artists Katharina Sieverding, Lothar Baumgarten (later New York and Berlin), Klaus Rinke, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Jan Dibbets, and not least the early students of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Of these, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth initially received special attention. In this context, the profitable labels of the “Becher Class” and the “Düsseldorf School of Photography” were coined. This branding delighted the art trade and was also further propagated by the institutions.
The supposed unity of the Düsseldorf photographers, of whom only the above-mentioned had sustained (commercial) success, was, however, already fragile in terms of content in the mid-1990s and then quickly turned into a historized phenomenon that was still celebrated as contemporary in museums. Highlights on an international level include the solo exhibitions of Andreas Gursky in New York, Chicago, and Paris in 2001, Thomas Ruff’s solo exhibition that traveled to numerous European cities beginning in 2001, Thomas Struth’s retrospectives in Dallas, Los Angeles, and Chicago in 2002, and Candida Höfer’s contribution to the German Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale in 2003. In 2002, the large, two-part survey exhibition “heute bis jetzt. Zeitgenössische Fotografie aus Düsseldorf” (today till now – contemporary photography from Düsseldorf) was presented at the Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf, followed by the exhibition “Objectivités: La Photographie à Düsseldorf” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2008. Thus, a label was successful which actually covered a wide range of artistic approaches that no longer bore much resemblance to that of their teachers or, increasingly, even to one another. + read more
By 2000 at the latest, however, Düsseldorf photography was no longer a purely regional or national phenomenon but legitimized as an international trademark. As a result, the understanding of contemporary German photography was shaped across the board, while other approaches were largely ignored. At the same time, the partial departure from the documentary point of view, which was promoted by several representatives of the former “Becher Class”, also led to the development of an artistic heteronomy that pushed the end of this market success from within.
Different approaches within the “Düsseldorf-school”
At this point, the guideline of the history of reception shall be briefly neglected in favor of aspects of content: What does ‘heteronomy’ mean in the context of Düsseldorf photography? Let us limit ourselves to three exemplary positions which, in the consciousness of the digital age, have dismissed the traditional paradigm of the ‘documentary style’. Thomas Ruff’s extremely diverse series are basically about questioning the function of the medium, which for many years has refrained from using the camera and instead goes hand in hand with an attitude of appropriation, i.e. reflecting on photographic images themselves. In contrast, Andreas Gursky emphasizes the constructed nature of the image, which condenses into an “encyclopedia of life” or super-signs of social life. Jörg Sasse also assumes a break in the indexical connection between the camera and the motif. In his “Tableaus“, he presents – beyond the motif – an analysis of the pictorial nature of the photographic image. He has pursued this further with the “Skizzen” (Sketches) based on found photographs, as well as in the “Speicher” (Repositories): There, in a sculptural form of presentation, Sasse aims to retransform the digital flow of data into a haptic, analogue image archive. At the same time, a performative dimension opens up here, since the recipient becomes transformed into a curator who follows the artist’s conceptual guidelines – a reversal of the traditional relationship.
Extension of the possibilities of artistic photography
Be that as it may: The international reputation of the few Düsseldorf photographers (in fact, only one woman belongs to this illustrious circle) goes hand in hand with a fundamental change in the visual language. In contrast to traditional photography, this concerns the integration of color, a new way of framing and presenting (the Diasec technique) the considerably enlarged pictures since the late 1980s, which were able to compete with painting. The French art theorist Jean-Francois Chevrier created the term “tableau” for this form of display, which was developed primarily in Vancouver and Düsseldorf. A short time later, recognizable digital processing was added as a possible design element.
No new norm was set with these design elements – which, incidentally, are not solely due to the merits of the Düsseldorf photographers – but the horizon of the possibilities of artistic photography was indeed considerably broadened. A good example of this is the photography of Günther Förg, who was also known as a painter and sculptor and used the large format even earlier than the Düsseldorf photographers. In this respect even more avant-garde is the position of Katharina Sieverding, who already made use of the ‘big picture’ in the late 1960s.
In fact, in the second half of the 1990s, various other German photographers were able to take advantage of the boom in the rediscovered artistic medium to gain greater attention for their work. The most notable of these are Timm Rautert, Joachim Brohm, Michael Schmidt, Thomas Florschütz, and Christopher Muller, as well as Floris Neusüss, Bernhard Prinz, Gisela Bullacher, and Michael Wesely.
It would be a great simplification to understand the awakened interest in the no longer young pictorial form as a phenomenon of the art market alone. The decisive factor here is also the activities of the museums, many of which have been adding artistic photography to their collections and exhibiting this since the late 1990s. Without this infrastructure – which also includes the educational institutions for artistic photographers in Germany, which exert a strong international attraction – the boom would hardly have had any lasting effect.
Three positions from the 2000s
Let us now approach the twenty-first century as we attempt to determine our position and come to those artistic positions that are currently shaping the art discourse. Here, we recommend a differentiation in two decades. For the immediate beginning of the millennium, three exemplary approaches shall be mentioned, which confirm the continued attractiveness of the medium in an innovative manner:
There is first of all Wolfgang Tillmans, who was awarded the much-acclaimed Turner Prize in 2000 and subsequently had an unparalleled impact on the market. After his work was initially characterized by documentary shots of a generation of young people in the context of trendy magazines, in the new millennium he, on the one hand, integrated elements of amateurism, which made him equally attractive for traditionalists and advocates of critical photography. On the other hand, Tillmans also incorporated experimental photographic approaches (under the headings of ‘abstraction‘ and ‘object character‘) into his work and therefore appears to set the trend for an unconstrained artistic creation that increasingly achieves sympathy through the political commitment of its author. + read more
A second central figure in German photography is Thomas Demand, who lives in Los Angeles and teaches in Hamburg. After his solo exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005 and the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin in 2009, Demand has become one of the leading figures in artistic photography. His photographs – as well as moving images – are based on constructed, life-sized paper models, which are photographed and then produced in the same (life) size as photographs. Demand’s pictures, created since the early 1990s, approach hybrid art forms in their balancing act between photography and sculpture, which have since been driven forward by other artists. Demand’s approach is motivated by the public image discourse (often: press images) and conjurs socially relevant or even historical events in both subtle and elaborate ways. It is obvious that Demand thus also adopts a thoroughly image-critical attitude, which, in the digital age, also reveals the conflict between manual creation or reality and medial communication.
Tim Rautert and the “Rautert Class”
The third important position, which is of great importance in the early twenty-first century, is not a single person but a heteronomous ‘group’ from Leipzig. The central starting point is the class of Timm Rautert, who taught at the HfGB – Academy of Fine Arts Leipzig through 2007. Since 1999, he had initiated several group exhibitions for his students under the heading “Rautert Class” – which sounds suspiciously similar to the Düsseldorf label, but was by no means intended as an analogous marketing strategy. Rather, the difference was emphasized in the press releases in such a way that a heterogeneity in the varieties of photography was placed in the foreground. Accordingly, there are clear technical differences and also various forms of presentation among the individual photographers, that are unsuitable for the formation of a trademark. Even the reference to a common interest in a critical approach to the medium is not sufficient as a tertium comparationis. In this respect, the amalgamation of these artists into a single class is questionable – which in no way calls into question the artistic quality of individual approaches. In this context, Viktoria Binschtok, Peggy Buth, Sven Johne, Ricarda Roggan, Adrian Sauer, Oskar Schmidt, and Tobias Zielony, who now play an important role in the supra-regional photographic discourse, deserve special mention.
Decisive thematic fields of contemporary photography
Beyond these three approaches, it is also possible to point on another level to various topics that played a major role at the beginning of the twenty-first century and, in some cases, continue to play an important role today. There is the theme of the archive, which is of artistic interest in various forms. Here, it is not only a matter of a return to the historical, a reflection on practiced forms of perception, but also of an examination of images as data that can be used in society as economic and power instruments. Moreover, the various forms of the political are again increasingly of artistic relevance. Only in a few cases does this lead to striking forms of photographic rhetoric, but the search for a new language of politically motivated image criticism is as virulent as it is difficult.
Medial modes of reflection and the exploration of hybrid pictorial forms continue to be of great importance in contemporary artistic photography. It is not necessary to use fashionable neologisms such as that of “post-internet art” to realize that the form of the “tableau” has long since been dismissed. The protagonists of this once revolutionary form of a powerful photographic display are well aware of this – note the statement by Jeff Wall quoted as the motto of this text. Meanwhile, not only Wall, but also various German artists (such as Andreas Gursky and Louisa Clement) use smartphone cameras to produce their images.
The immediate present: 2010 until today
In the course of our naïve developmental history, which has hitherto masked itself as a history of reception, we arrive at the immediate present with a next ten-year step, so that the perspective becomes increasingly subjective and takes on almost confessional traits. This applies both to the individual positions to be named and to fundamental expectations of the photographic image. Historians and theorists prefer to look back in time. In general, one can certainly expect at least a double dimension from truly contemporary photographs: the departure from the everyday flood of images (aesthetic difference), as well as from the historical repertoire of images (historical difference). + read more
Digitilization: technology and/ or image content
In the second decade of the new millennium, the experience of a changed social reality is not surprisingly accompanied by a modified cosmos of images. The magic word of digitalization has already been mentioned several times in this essay. In this context, however, it is important to introduce the distinction between digital technology as a mode of pictorial creation on the one hand and digitalization as a thematic content of contemporary photography on the other. It is undisputed that both areas can coincide. The latter aspect, the thematization of the digital, has, however, recently become increasingly important. The flood of images caused by digital media, which we encounter above all in our dealings with the Internet, is, in general, nothing new. It has been lamented for decades, only its quantitative growth has increased significantly. In the various forms of “appropriation art”, it has recently been a content-related motivation for artists.
In closing, let us be more specific: In recent years, other names have been added to the list of important German artists already mentioned – either because they have been rediscovered or because their reception has been delayed. I would like to mention the following different approaches: the (not only) media-reflexive positions of Jochen Lempert and – almost antipodal to this – Beate Gütschow; the conceptual and image-critical approaches of Dieter Kiessling, Peter Piller, Barbara Probst, and Jan Paul Evers; the approaches of Annette Kelm, Heidi Specker, Laura Bielau, Andrzej Steinbach, and Sabrina Jung that reflect both documentarism and pictorial history. Even beyond the re-updated tendencies of feminism, a greater attention for female positions is unmistakable. Should the old ›new medium‹ thus now truly reveal an emancipatory potential that was still surprisingly underdeveloped in the last century? – The selection of artists for the “Kubus. Sparda Art Prize” 2019 speaks for this. To what extent it is future-oriented beyond this remains to be seen.