Artistic Photography2019-03-19T12:05:08+00:00
Stefan Gronert

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

Which 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

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 “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

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:

Wolfgang Tillmans

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

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

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