Düsseldorf School of Photography

Started: Mid-1970s
There is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either. They are engineering constructions with their own aesthetic.

Summary of Düsseldorf School of Photography

The Düsseldorf School of Photography - sometimes known simply as the "Becher School" - takes its name from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf where Bernd and Hilla Becher began teaching photography from 1976. The Düsseldorf School set new standards of objective excellence for art photography and provided the foundation for some of contemporary photography's most important names. Vehemently opposed to what they saw as the indulgences of expressive and experimental photographic techniques - especially those of German photographer Otto Steinert, who had gained fame for a highly subjective approach that included blurred figures in motion, reversed exposures, and various other experimental techniques - the school fostered an attitude of detached observation and fine picture detail which associated them with the Conceptual and Minimalist art movements.

At the Kunstakademie, the Bechers, who themselves produced in excess of 20,000 images, launched the first dedicated university photographic department in Germany. There, the Bechers educated and influenced three generations of German photographers including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Laurenz Berges, Elger Esser, Simone Nieweg, Jörg Sasse, and Petra Wunderlich. Though the individual members took their practice in new directions, the Düsseldorf group remained consistent in their commitment to the principles of their founders. Often presented to the public on the scale and complexity of historical paintings, their photography took its rightful place along-side other fine art movements.

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Progression of Art


Cooling Towers

Artist: Bernd and Hilla Becher

This image brings together twelve photographs, of equal size, of industrial cooling towers, arranged in a grid, creating what the Bechers' called a "typology". Photographed with a tableau approach, and filling the pictorial frame, each cooling tower is represented in sharp objective focus that allows each structure, as art critic Will Martin noted, to "be identified for its individual features. In much the same way that one might read different faces in a portraiture exhibition."

The pair continued photographing structures of this kind over the following decades, producing, in the words of art historian Michael Collins, "a magnificent history of the fast-disappearing modern archaeology of the West's industrialisation" (though the Bechers sometimes photographed new industrial structures too). To obtain the precise detail that individualizes each tower they used only large format cameras to create a fusion between their "typologies" and the philosophical interests of the contemporary artistic avant-garde. Indeed, their families of "anonymous sculptures" lent themselves well to the tenets of Minimalism, which celebrated functionalism and purity of form above all else, while the idea of repetition was a central column of Conceptualism.

However, whereas Minimalism and Conceptualism lent themselves to the "de-skilling" of art, The Bechers' punctilious approach to their "sculptures" placed great importance on technique. They summarized their practice thus: "The particular strength of photography lies in an absolutely realistic recording of the world. This sets it apart from all other image media; photography can do this better than anything else. And the more precisely it depicts objects the stronger its magical effect on the observer." The Bechers were thus able to contribute to development of contemporary art practice without compromising on artistry. Indeed, they succeeded in transforming attitudes towards photography within the elitist cliques of the fine art world.

Gelatin silver prints (Twelve parts, each: 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm)) - Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA


Portrait 1986 (Stoya)

Artist: Thomas Ruff

Taken the year after he had completed his studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, this photograph was part of Ruff's Portraits (1986-91), an extended series where the subjects - each titled with the series' title, the year and the subject's name - were friends and colleagues of the artist. This large color portrait shows Stoya, a young man, his head and upper chest and shoulders filling the frame. Against the white background, he gazes with a composed but blank expression toward the viewer. The highly realistic representation - without any identification or expression of personality or feeling - conveys the overall effect of a utilitarian passport photo. As Ruff said of the image, "I wanted to do a kind of official portrait of my generation. I wanted the photographs to look like those in passports, but without any other information."

The art historian Douglas Eklund observed that Ruff was the first of the Düsseldorf photographers "to dramatically enlarge the size of his pictures - a move intended to refer his works to the scale of traditional art as well as that of the highway billboard - and to face-mount them directly to a sheet of Plexiglas to enhance their sheen and objectlike quality, two technical innovations widely imitated in contemporary photography."

Ruff returned to the Portraits series in 1998 stating, "I don't believe we can still make portraits in the conventional sense of 'representing a personality' today [...] Which is why I imitate portraits." At the same time, art critic Régis Durand argued that, because of their impersonal neutrality, the portraits "undercut any attempt to look for clues that would allow one to go beyond them." Ruff's Portraits series acted thus as both a record - or "typology" - of a family of individuals and as a blank, lifeless, record of faces and bodies. In this respect, his Portraits invite the spectator to reflect on the photographer's quest for authenticity in the photographic portrait.

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


The Smith Family, Fife

Artist: Thomas Struth

Struth started out as a painter and studied under Gerard Richter at the Düsseldorf School, but, feeling that he was "making big super-realist photographic paintings that just seemed pointless and a bit stupid," he turned all his creative attentions towards photography. In 1976 he joined the first photography class offered by the Bechers, and his first images were of the empty streets of Düsseldorf (his hometown). Struth produced his first family portrait series between 1983-84 having collaborated with the psychologist Ingo Hartmann on the photographic anthology Familienleben (Family Life).

This image comes from his later Family Portraits series. It depicts the Smith family, its eight members standing or sitting closely together in their sitting room. The room is furnished with overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, and a number of artworks on the wall. Yet all sense of a harmonious domestic environment is called into question by the group's guarded expressions. Indeed, their unsmiling faces look dispassionately into Struth's lens. As art critic Richard Sennet wrote, "We relate to these images as we might appreciate strangers in a crowd; we feel their presence without the need to transgress boundaries by demanding intimacy or revelation [...] people guard their separateness even as they present themselves directly to us." Static and frontally staged, the portraits translate the conventions of 19th century photography into a contemporary idiom. As Struth said, "The public have always been drawn to them because they see a reflection of themselves, their own families. They sense, I think, that these are just condensed slices of an epic."

Struth's approach to portraiture is less uniform than his contemporary Thomas Ruff. In a 2008 interview with the photojournalism magazine Foto8 he explained how he adhered to "a very small number of rules". These included the use of a large format camera, relying only on natural light sources, and that the family group all look into the camera. As he said: "I usually make a choice for the location, and then people can position themselves on the stage that I've selected - which most of the time is where they live [...] Within that setting there are different freedoms - they can wear what they want, position themselves next to who they want - they can smile or not smile." He added that his sitters "can also object to publication and say we don't like it - don't use it. If they approve the family get one first edition print signed and framed as a gift."

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



Artist: Thomas Struth

This photograph depicts the Pantheon in Rome, its circular structure rising above small groups of tourists and individuals, as the building's classical architecture, which fills the frame, takes on a monumental presence. Taken with a large format camera, the image captures the architectural details, allowing the viewer, like the tourists in the middle ground, to linger over the image and discover and experience the ancient Roman temple. Struth said, "I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything." At the same time, the light from the oculus, or circular opening, in the building's massive dome gives the image a liminal quality, capturing, as art critic Sean O'Hagen wrote, "some sense of the invisible or, at least, the latent. Whether it be restlessness, calm or the strange hinterland between boredom and contemplation that often holds sway in both places of worship and temples of culture, his photographs are always about this looming 'other' that hovers just outside the frame."

The image was part of Struth's Museum series which he began in 1989. Struth's goal was to record people visiting famous European museums and galleries. The impetus for the project originated in 1987 while working on his Portrait series. While photographing Giles Robertson in his Edinburgh home, he noticed that the art historian was looking at a book while seated in front of three historical paintings: "this suggested to me the potential for including a marriage of a contemporary moment and a historical moment in one photographic plane," recalled Struth. The series was further informed by his experience of living in Naples and Rome where he observed how the enjoyment of art was very often connected directly or indirectly to a religious experience. As he said, "The gallery is a kind of unclear, in between space for many people [...] I wanted to capture that interim sense of place." Struth, however, rejected the claim that his work belonged to the category of Conceptual Art (as some critics had suggested). He had wanted to ask the more rudimentary question of whether these classical structures were "like cemeteries or a living organism where people can nourish themselves about aspects of human existence?"

Chromogenic print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Artist: Andreas Gursky

This photograph shows an aerial view of the industrial harbor in Salerno, Italy. The overwhelming but orderly panorama of parked cars creates a diagonal plane that cuts from center left to the lower right, intersected by another diagonal of shipping containers, extending horizontally into the sea. In the upper third of the photograph the city, its apartment complexes along the coast and expensive homes built on the overlooking foothills, curves along the harbor, as the mountains rise in the distance. The color is both expansive and orderly, as the rows of white cars pop with beats of red and black, while the shipping containers in orange, yellow, with notes of blue, create an alternating and lively rhythm. The overall effect is what art critic Sean O'Hagen called an "epic panorama" that conveys "the scale and reach of global capitalism, the thrust of 21st-century commerce."

Gursky claimed that it was only once he'd examined the contact sheets that he picked out "that pattern, that pictorial density, that industrial aesthetic." Indeed, the German suggested that Salerno offered him a turning point in his career: "It opened up a new sense of possibility, stylistically and thematically," he said, "I tried photographing other ports, but I realised that wasn't what had made the Salerno image work. It was the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail."

The distanced but sharply focused view, with its overwhelming details, creates an almost abstract geometric grid which only reveals its recognizable details upon closer inspection. No element within the image is prioritized, as both the ships sitting along the dock, the mundane containers, and the scenic mountains with the city at their base are presented with the same detached equanimity. As art curator Peter Galassi wrote, "High art versus commerce, conceptual rigor versus spontaneous observation, photography versus painting [...] for Gursky they are all givens - not opponents but companions."

Gursky suggested that "Visually, everything was completely at odds with what I had been taught [...] Bernd and Hilla Becher had told me to avoid photographing with sunlight, blue sky or strong shadows. But I thought the warm sunlight here made for something quite kitsch. Also, up until this point, human beings had been the focus of my work - but here there were none in sight. Yet I was overwhelmed by what I saw: the complexity of the image, the accumulation of goods, the cars, the containers [it] was the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail." Art historian Douglas Ekland described the image as "a beehive of feverish production and consumption that effaces historical reflection in favor of the spectacles of technology and tourism."

Chromogenic print face-mounted to acrylic - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco


Rhine II

Artist: Andreas Gursky

This monumental photograph - roughly 6-by-13 feet in size - depicts the Rhine River near Düsseldorf as a broad gray horizontal band shimmering between the bands of green grass. The silvery waves of the river create a kind of correspondence with luminescence of the clouded sky, while the strips of green and gray create a sense of horizontal movement. Devoid of human presence, the landscape takes on a near abstract simplicity, its geometric bands commanding the viewer's attention from a distance, while the scale of the work allows the viewer to discover, close-up, the texture of the tuffs of grass and the choppy waves. Gursky said that this is his favorite photograph as "It says a lot using the most minimal means [...] for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are."

This image was one of six in the photographer's Rhine series, where he said, he "wasn't interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the River Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it." Employing digital editing, he erased two buildings on the other side of the river and dog walkers strolling along the bank. Detached from narrative and human elements, the work becomes, as art critic Sean O'Hagen put it, "an image of somewhere that does not really exist," emphasizing "the detached looking" of the Düsseldorf School. Speaking of the Rhine River series, Gursky spoke of how the Bechers had instilled in him the idea of objective space: "While my images are all comprised of many details - which you can explore in depth because of the high resolution - that's not what they are about. Each one is always a world of its own, created."

C-print mounted to acrylic glass - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

Artist: Candida Höfer

This large photograph depicts the Abbey Library, established in 963AD, at the monastery of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Taken from a high vantage point, the vaulted Baroque ceiling fills the top third of the image, as if the viewer were hovering just beneath its dramatic and elaborate frescos. At the same time, the view down into the library hall, with its glass display cases full of books, is flattened, an effect that emphasizes the serpentine curves of the balcony running along the bookshelves and the pattern of the wooden floor. Höfer created a series of six photographs of the library of which this was the first. As art historian Rachel Taylor wrote, Höfer's series addressed "institutions that define and structure western culture [...] The library series in particular focuses the viewer's attention on spatial systems of order designed to reflect and foster optimism in intellectual progress."

Höfer studied with the Bechers at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie between 1976 and 1982. She adopted their approach on her libraries and cultural institutions series (though she claims she is generally "less pragmatic" than her mentors). While her images usually were devoid of human presence - Höfer has stated that she preferred her work to be "empty of people" and that she had "found over time that spaces say more about people when people are not in them" - this photograph depicts a number of people working in the library, but as ghostly figures, their movements blurred due to the long exposure time required by using only natural light. As art critic Ari Messer wrote, "her perfectly lit photographs of building interiors and archives [have] been rightly called an 'architecture of absence.'" Also a noted teacher, Höfer's work, emphasizing what Taylor called "technical perfection and a strictly conceptual approach," continues to influence contemporary photography.

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

Beginnings of Düsseldorf School of Photography


The Düsseldorf School drew upon several influences, including industrial photographs dating back to the 19th century and the New Objectivity of the 1920s. New Objectivity photography was exemplified in the works of August Sander, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Patsch. Sander's portraits, published in his Face of Our Time (1929), depicted a cross-section of German society with seven 'types', organized by profession. Blossfeldt photographed plants in magnified detail, emphasizing, in his words, a "totally artistic and architectural structure," while Albert Renger-Patzsch's photographs of manmade and natural forms, took on a scientific precision, as seen in his Intersecting Braces of a Truss Bridge (1928). Industrial photography, practiced by commercial photographers, was, as art critic Michael Collins observed, "commissioned to record both great and everyday industrial and civic projects" while adding that most "industries would maintain a photographic record of their operations." These "record photographs," influenced the Düsseldorf School's subject matter and their emphasis on picture clarity and detail.

The Bechers were influenced by the Modernist pioneer Marcel Duchamp whose found utilitarian artworks - or "readymades" - paved the way for a more cerebral approach to what "art" was or might be. Duchamp's influence had its greatest impact on Conceptual and Minimalist art movements and the Bechers duly carried over his ideas into the teachings of the Düsseldorf School. Indeed, the Bechers felt that the industrial structures they "found" were photographic heirs to the readymades concept and the couple's first monograph, Anonymous Sculptures (1970), was conceived of as an homage to Marcel Duchamp's original contribution to the "rethinking" of the essence of art.

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser met in 1957, while both were working at an advertising agency in order to finance their studies at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Trained as a photographer, Wobeser had initially worked with Walter Eichgrun, and she described his traditional and conservative approach as "direct, descriptive photography [with] clear, clean images - with a complete tonal range, with appropriate depths - devoted to the subject." As a student of illustration, Bernd was eventually drawn to photography by his fascination with the industrial structures of the German Ruhr valley where he grew up. Undertaking a series of drawings of a foundry that was being demolished in 1957, he took photographs to record the structure. However, finding that his photographs surpassed his drawings in their detail he turned exclusively to photography.

In 1959 the Bechers began collaborating on a project of photographing industrial structures, including water towers, blast furnaces, kilns, and gas tanks, in the Ruhr Valley. Their local approach, driving through the area in a van, was partly due to practical constraints, though they were also fascinated with the functional forms. They used only large format cameras to obtain the fine detail they wanted and only black and white film, evoking the practice of the New Objectivity movement. They also developed a system of rules that included: photographing only on overcast days to reduce the effects of shadows and so their prints would have the same tonal range, cropping the subject to fill up the pictorial frame, and shooting against a low horizon. Following two years of close collaboration, they married in 1961 and were to work together for the rest of their professional lives.

Subjective Photography

Following World War II, Otto Steinert's "subjective photography," described in his manifesto (1951), as "humanized, individualized photography," dominated German photography. The movement was part of a post-war shift towards humanist photography, as exemplified by Edward Steichen's popular "The Family of Man" exhibition of 1955. Emphasizing human feeling and narrative, the images were mostly taken with a hand-held 35mm camera that captured spontaneous movement and expression through reversed images, blurred figures in motion, and other techniques associated with the photographic avant-garde. In contrast, the Bechers used large format plate cameras, emphasized a distanced objectivity and precise detail. As art critic Michael Collins wrote, "While many would perceive this type of photograph as 19th-century in style [...] The Bechers' purpose has always been to make the clearest possible photographs of industrial structures [...] concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations." Between 1970 and 1972, the Bechers' photography became fully attached to the Conceptual and Minimalist art movements following their showing at two major international exhibitions: Information, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1970, and Documenta V in Kassel, Germany, in 1972.

Kunstakademie Düsseldorf

In 1976 the Bechers, by now well established within the contemporary art world, began teaching photography and establishing a dedicated photographic department at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, already known as a leading hub for Conceptual art in Germany. Joseph Beuys, a pioneer and leading figure in installation and performance art, had begun teaching there in 1961. Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer and Sigmar Polke also studied at the school and Richter even took up a teaching post there. At the same time major artists including Daniel Buren, Michael Asher, and Richard Serra gave lectures and classes as visiting artists. Given the status of Kunstakademie, the Bechers felt compelled to elevate the status of the photography department. As Bernd said, "it was important for our students to be made aware that they were doing something which was totally the equal in merit to painting." Those students included Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, and others, who became the next generation of leading photographers.

Concepts and Styles


As art critic Kevin Lynch noted, the Bechers emphasized "a pattern of sequential experiences," creating a series of images that were connected to one another. They called this approach "typology;" that is the desire "to make families of objects," or "families of motifs." Yet their vision eschewed any sentimental or conventional view of "family," in favor of a more brutal take on nature, as they said, their motifs "become humanized and destroy one another, as in Nature where the older is devoured by the newer."

By the early 1960s they exhibited their photographs only as typologies, using a grid of four small images next to a larger print of a type of industrial structure such as a blast factory or a water tower. Eventually they expanded to their grid system to include more images - all of equal size - and often arranged in rows of three. The grids allowed the images to be discovered as subtypes of the same structure. The new grid format also allowed, when viewed from a distance, to be more of an imposing presence, while, on close scrutiny, the individual images took on a fascinating individuality. Later, when subsequent Düsseldorf School photographers adopted the large camera format, and their system of hard-and-fast rules governing the goals of objectivity, most of the Bechers' students preferred to place emphasis on the individual picture, though still within the context of an expanded series.

Anonymous Sculptures

In 1969 the Bechers introduced the concept of "anonymous sculptures," a term they used to describe the industrial - "readymade" - edifices they photographed. The following year they published Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten (Anonymous Sculpture: A Typology of Technical Constructions) which became their most famous work and gained them recognition in the United States. The title reflected the view, from which they never departed, that the industrial structures they photographed were found objects and fitted thus with Marcel Duchamp's famous readymades concept. Indeed, because of their emphasis on the sculptural properties of their chosen objects, they received an award for sculpture (rather than photography) at the 1990 Venice Biennale. Later still, in 1999, they began using the term Grundformen, or basic forms, which further emphasized the nature of the structure itself devoid of all social and historical context. As they said at the time, "We want to offer the audience a point of view, or rather a grammar, to understand and compare the different structures. Through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association."

Large Format Photography and Digital Editing

As far back as the late 1950s the Bechers developed a photographic system that involved using large format cameras to create images of great detail. In 1986 Thomas Ruff and Axel Hütte began making large format prints in collaboration with Grieger, an advertising firm practicing in Düsseldorf. Presented initially as part of a "family" of images, individual portraits were isolated and enlarged to a scale that filled up a whole wall. Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth also adopted the large format and began bonding the image to a sheet of acrylic glass in what became known as the Diasec technique. As a result, the photograph was presented visually as if placed within the tradition of a gallery "masterpiece" while also taking on an observational quality.

Conceptualism and Minimalism

Though the term "Conceptual Photography" came into its own in the 1960s (coinciding with rise of the Conceptual Art movement) the practice can be traced back to the beginning of the twentieth century when Alfred Stieglitz photographed Marcel Duchamp's readymade urinal - Fountain. In the same spirit, the Bechers' photographs of "readymade" cooling towers become Conceptual artworks in their own right. Later still, Conceptual Photography developed to accommodate photo-editing that gave artistic legitimacy to portfolios that contained images that had been digitally "reworked." Ruff, for instance, used portraits of blank faces and found pornographic images which he pixilated to create original images.

Gursky, meanwhile, created composites by digitally combining several small images to create a single large image of a landscape or interior space. He also used digital editing to eliminate the "distractions" of architecture and human elements to bring a Minimalist simplicity and sparseness to his landscapes. The simple lines and geometric patterns of his images, coupled with a contrast in color and dark shadows, bring a certain texture to the image. By digitally altering the image, Gursky was able to make the most of "negative space" in order to accentuate the bare and basic elements of the composition as a whole.

Later Developments - After Düsseldorf School of Photography

In the mid-1970s the Bechers influenced the development of the so-called "topographic approach" to landscape. They joined a group that included Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, and Frank Gohlk for the New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape exhibition at George Eastman House in 1976. The Bechers' objective approach struck a chord with many new artists who reacted against the romantic aesthetic and the Düsseldorf School of Photography was starting to be compared with the burgeoning New American Color movement, which emerged at roughly the same time.

The Düsseldorf School's aesthetic had a great impact on the development of Conceptual art, while its concerns with industrial subjects had a cultural impact in Germany too since industrial architecture was seen as befitting of historical preservation. In subsequent decades, the Düsseldorf School trained and influenced a number of new German photographers including Elger Esser, Frank Breuer, Simone Nieweg, Petra Wunderlich, and Laurenz Berges, as well as the Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky. The contemporary generation of Düsseldorf photographers has carried forward the lessons of the original group - observational, dispassionate and prosaic - while allowing for greater personal expression. Axel Hütte, for instance, creates magical images of natural landscapes such as forests and mountains using compositional elements that copy abstract painting.

At the same time, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky became acclaimed internationally to the degree that art critics dubbed them the "Struffskys." Selling for $4.3 million, Gursky's Rhine II (the second in a series of six) set a record-breaking price for a photograph in 2011. In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, Struth became known for his 2011 royal commission to photograph Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh. The following year, London's National Gallery held its first major photographic exhibition, including key Düsseldorf artists.

Critical challenges also crystallized, as in 2011 Professional Photographer magazine put forward the theory that the Düsseldorf School had effectively killed off photography. They argued that the work of the group left the audience cold, and that it offered no opinion or personality. The Düsseldorf School had made photography "easy" by focusing on the mundane and the everyday meaning that anyone could pick up a camera and claim their work was important art. Photographer Grant Scott summed the school up as, "photography without opinion, comment or personality." Nevertheless, in Germany, the Düsseldorf School has been perhaps the most significant artistic movement since The Bauhaus School and it was vital in rebuilding the status of photography as an artistic medium following World War II. The lasting legacy of the School has been to elevate the reputation of photography to that of historical painting, cementing, as art critic Alastair Sooke put it, "photography's legitimacy as contemporary art."

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