German Photography: The Düsseldorf Academy of Art

German Photography: The Düsseldorf Academy of Art

Trained by the Bechers, what ultimately made the Düsseldorf Photographers famous was their collective switch to color from the traditional use of black and white, and the monumental size of their pictures.

Trained by the Bechers, what ultimately made the Düsseldorf Photographers famous was their collective switch to color from the traditional use of black and white, and the monumental size of their pictures.

Thomas Struth Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien II, 1989

Often referred to as the Düsseldorf Photographers, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff all grew up in a country whose cities were devastated by the allied bombing during World War II and whose recent past questioned the very nature of humanity. Silence and post-war depression was the adult norm. How do you teach history to children when your country is occupied and on trial? The answer came from a generation of artists who, led by the avant-garde visionary Josef Beuys at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, sought to examine their cultural heritage through art.

Legend has it that Beuys, a Luftwaffe pilot in WWII, was shot down and then saved by an aboriginal society who wrapped him in fat and animal skins and brought him back to life. In the early 1960s Beuys joined the faculty at the Düsseldorf Art Academy as a sculpture professor. His lectures and electrifying performances expanded art into theater, politics and social activism. His 1965 solo performance, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, suggested the healing potential of art for a world in need of revitalization and hope. It was Beuys' premise that we need to Show Your Wound in order to heal. Though dismissed from the academy in 1971 before the aforementioned photographers had enrolled, Beuys had set the stage for future generations by transforming the Düsseldorf Art Academy into a center for new European avant-garde that attracted such artists as Gerhard Richter and the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Bernd and Hilla Becher Selected images, 1973-1974

Höfer, Struth, Hütte, Gursky and Ruff were some of the first students at the Düsseldorf Art Academy to study photography with Bernd Becher. Bernd and his wife Hilla, together began photographing structures — often relics of the Industrial Revolution such as coal tipples and cooling towers as seen in Selected images, 1973-1974 — in 1959. Like scientists removing a specimen from the field, the Bechers framed their subject in a manner that isolated it from its environment. They further invited investigation by placing images of like-structures in grids and classifying them by title. By the time Bernd Becher became a professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy (policy would not allow Hilla a simultaneous appointment), the Bechers' photographs, with their seemingly neutral point of view and serial display, were applauded by the international art world as important works of Minimal and Conceptual Art.

Candida Höfer Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris V, 1998

Candida Höfer Teatro Comunale di Bologna I, 2006

After studying film (1973-1976) at the Academy, Candida Höfer joined Bernd Becher's first Photography class in 1976. Thomas Struth began his studies in painting, but with the encouragement of his teacher, Gerhard Richter, switched to photography along with Höfer and Hütte. Thomas Ruff joined them in 1977, and Andreas Gursky in 1988. They were the first generation of the Bechers' students to receive acclaim in the international arena of Contemporary art as photographers. Although trained by the Bechers to use photography as a tool for artists to explore the cultural, commercia, and political history reality reflected in the world around them, what ultimately made the Düsseldorf Photographers famous as a group was their collective switch to color photography from the traditional use of black and white, and the monumental size of their pictures.

They were the first generation of the Bechers' students to receive acclaim in the international arena of Contemporary art as photographers.

Thomas Ruff Porträt (A. Giese), 1989

Thomas Ruff was the first of the Düsseldorf Photographers to make color photographs. Using members of the post-punk band EKG and fellow students as models, Ruff began a series of portraits, a genre that had been all but ignored by the post-WWII Düsseldorf Art Academy. Applying the Bechers' emphasis on artistic neutrality, he asked his sitters to try to be as expressionless as possible and to wear ordinary clothes. In 1986 he added another important element to his color portrait: size. Porträt (A. Giese), 1989 is an early example of Ruff's famous portrait series. The physical presence of this monumental portrait changes the way we view a photograph: from a visual reading of a small black and white image to a full body experience; from a mind's eye understanding of the image in front to the sensation of physically falling into an overwhelming profusion of minute details.

Thomas Struth West Broadway, New York/Tribeca, 1978

During the late 1970s Thomas Struth began to explore the historically layered construction of urban centers. These black and white classically constructed views, as we see in West Broadway, New York/Tribeca, 1978, were often taken from the center of deserted streets. As with Ruff's large-scale deadpan portraits, Struth's medium-scale, coolly rendered cityscapes invite investigation.

Over the next decades Struth expanded his urban subject matter to include family portraits, landscapes and man-made structures from around the world. Struth's most publically praised photographs are his Museum Photographs: large-scale color images of people visiting museums, churches and other cultural intuitions around the world. Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien II, 1989 is an early and important example from Struth's celebrated Museum series. With the same analytical approach as for his earlier cityscapes, this photograph brings our attention to the pattern or structure of the physical and mental space in which people gather to look at art. And as with his street shots, this large format color photograph creates a tautological connection between the history of a place (its form and content) and our current usage of it. But in the Museum series, Struth has added the human element of our codified social behavioral patterns, which appear to be echoed in the art we choose to visit. Celebrated as a history painter of the present, the photographer once described art as a means of locating yourself in your time.

Andreas Gursky Athens, 1995

In Andreas Gursky's photographs, time seems to stop in a moment of metaphysical reflection. His large-scale color photographs appear to come from an omnipresent viewpoint that places before us the world of appearances. As with Struth, Gursky has been compared to history painters of the past; unlike Struth's, however, Gursky's photographs do not seem to address our cultural history but rather present an overwhelming sense of now.

Elger Esser Drôme, Frankreich, 1998

Elger Esser is a very different photographer from the generation that preceded him at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Born in Germany, he was raised in Rome by his German father and French mother. He joined the Academy and became a student of the Bechers in the 1990s, a time in which the first generation was achieving worldwide fame. Instead of photographing the surface of his subject with documentary clarity and emotional distance of the previous generation, Esser opted to infuse his landscape photography with a poetic artistry.

His landscapes appear as a monochromatic evocation of times past rather than the detailed and demanding present of his famous colleagues. He explained "if you are a child growing up in a city like Rome, where you are confronted with over 3,000 years of history, you have a very different concept of time."