In the 1920s and early ‘30s German photography was dominated by two distinct approaches to making images. The first, associated with the work and ideas of László Maholy-Nagy (1895-1946), championed unconventional forms and techniques, unexpected vantage points, and playful printing techniques to engender a fresh rapport with the visible world. The other, part of a movement called New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), emphasized rigorous and close observation, bringing a sharply focused, documentary quality to the photographic art. Artists associated with New Objectivity wanted not simply to record the exact appearance of objects; they also proposed that photography could serve as a means to create an archive of the visible world—to classify the world around them. These photographers saw each subject, whether person or image of a building, as representative of a generalized “type.”
Though far from a comprehensive survey, “Contemporary Outlook: German Photography” takes the work of three artists associated with the New Objectivity—Albert Renger-Patzsch, August Sander, and Werner Manz—as precedent for subsequent generations of German photographers. These later artists have expanded on and challenged the work of their forbears in various ways. The key figures among the later group are Bernd and Hilla Becher, who since 1959 have explored the forms of the built environment, including traditional German houses and, most famously, industrial structures, making hundreds of images of water towers, blast furnaces, and mining apparatus. The Bechers’ black-and-white images are all taken in the same relentlessly clinical manner: they present the building in the center of the frame, making front and profile views to provide clear documentation of each structure. For several decades, the Bechers have been extremely influential teachers at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf. The younger artists shown here—whether they actually studied with the Bechers or simply worked under their creative guidance—have refined the sense of austerity and emotional remove that characterizes their mentors’ work while simultaneously exploring new themes and subjects.
Other artists included in this exhibition are Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth.
Contemporary Outlook is an exciting new series of small focused exhibitions, drawn mainly from the MFA collections, that examines emerging trends, issues, ideas, and ways of looking at art and artists.