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Düsseldorf School of Photography Collage

Düsseldorf School of Photography

Started: Mid-1970s
Düsseldorf School of Photography Timeline
"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."
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Bernd and Hilla Becher Signature
"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."
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Bernd and Hilla Becher Signature
"I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything."
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Thomas Struth Signature
"for me it is more interesting to try and find out something from the real than to throw something subjective in front of the audience."
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Thomas Struth Signature
"But I think, I hope, that the photographs possess a symbolic power that the viewer can connect with. That they have a symbolic power is very important to me, even if it is often a quiet one."
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Thomas Struth Signature
"One sometimes unconsciously makes the right decision."
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Andreas Gursky Signature
"All my landscapes are manmade. My interest lies in people, civilisation, human presence and activity."
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Andreas Gursky Signature
"I do still stumble across things by accident. As I'm always telling my students: you won't get anywhere sitting at a table thinking. You learn by doing. That's how you move forward. And even if you do something wrong, the result may be much more interesting than what you went looking for."
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Andreas Gursky Signature
"I believe that photography can only reproduce the surface of things. The same applies to a portrait. I take photographs of people the same way I would take photographs of a plaster bust."
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Thomas Ruff
"My images are not images of reality, but show a kind of second reality, the image of the image."
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Thomas Ruff
"...the image has a sort of balance in itself."
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Candida Höfer

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.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • In a move that was unprecedented (and all but unthinkable) in contemporary art circles, the Bechers were consumed with the idea that industrial engineering structures were, of themselves, worthy of aesthetic contemplation. The functional and symmetrical structures they admired also fitted perfectly with their mission to categorize and document the industrial landscape of Germany.
  • Born of a desire to create a new type of aesthetic index, the Bechers were responsible for the creation of the photographic "grid system" whereby they catalogued their images as "families" - or what they famously termed "typologies." There was a strict uniformity to the way the images were composed though by their nature each individual structure had its own look.
  • Though the idea was introduced by Thomas Ruff the year after he had finished his studies, members of the Düsseldorf School are still very closely associated with the idea of picture size and scale. Ruff took the principle of "typologies" from the Bechers but he was to enlarge his blank "passport" portraits to a dramatic scale thereby removing and isolating individual images from their original "family". His intention was to create individual photographic images on the magnitude of billboards and historical painting and this was a strategy adopted by Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky whose panoramic tableaus brought a new standard of image detail to photographic compositions.
  • Enamoured with Marcel Duchamp's concept of the "readymade," the Bechers coined the terms "anonymous sculptures" and "Grundformen" (basic forms). Though all consumed with the beauty and purity of industrial edifices, they approached these "sculptures" as found objects which they isolated and photographed in their "basic form" with the goal of bypassing all social and historical contexts and associations.

Overview of Düsseldorf School of Photography

Düsseldorf School of Photography Image

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.

Key Artists

  • The artistic duo Bernd and Hilla Becher were German photographers that explored the cultural impact of industrial design and the need for preservation through photographic series, memorializing them in single-image, gridded gelatin silver prints.
  • Thomas Struth's photographs range from street scenes, to posed 'family portraits', to both posed and candid scenes inside the world's museums - Struth's works offer many views of contemporary society.
  • Gursky's massive and distanced surveys of public spaces, landscapes, and structures contributed to new picture taking in contrast to the Minimalism and Conceptualism of the 1970s.

Do Not Miss

  • Conceptual art describes an influential movement that first emerged in the mid-1960s and prized ideas over the formal or visual components of traditional works of art. The artists often challenged old concepts such as beauty and quality; they also questioned the conventional means by which the public consumed art; and they rejected the conventional art object in favor of diverse mediums, ranging from maps and diagrams to texts and videos.
  • Straight Photography is a movement centered on depicting a scene in sharp focus and detail as a way to emphasize the photographic medium and distinguish it from painting. Straight Photographers manipulated darkroom techniques to enhance the photograph with higher contrast and rich tonality.
  • Postmodernism is a broad period of artmaking that occured after the period known as modernism - a period that was driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. Neo-Dada and later Pop artists are considered the first postmodern movements.

Important Photos and Artists of Düsseldorf School of Photography

Cooling Towers (1983)

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.

Portrait 1986 (Stoya) (1986)

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.

The Smith Family, Fife (1989)

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."

Useful Resources on Düsseldorf School of Photography

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Düsseldorf School of Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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