Wickham Steed once said that the Germans “dive deeper but come up muddier.” A stereotype, but born out in many facets of life, including their photography. Whether it’s the provocative eroticism of Helmut Newton or the brilliant but ornery subject matter of Andreas Müle, German photographers have never been afraid to push boundaries or go their own way.
While neighboring photographers in Switzerland and France became known for their humanism, post-war photography in Germany would be dominated by traits of precise technicality, disassociation, and objectivity. Regardless of which side of the Iron Curtain they practiced on, German photographers have shown the ability of minimalism and simplicity to create emotion and power.
Here are five of my favorite contemporary German photographers’ photographs, and a few words on each.
Called a “master of edited and reimagined imagery,” Thomas Ruff is part of the Düsseldorf School of photography — a set of German photographers trained at the Kunstacademie Düsseldorf. Their alumni roster is virtually a who’s who of contemporary German photographers, two more of which make this list. The movement is centered on conceptualism and minimalism and the resulting work is form-focused, dispassionate, observational and distant.
Ruff’s early work included a portfolio of portraits taken in the early eighties in the style usually found on passports — white background with lots of flash. The project morphed in the second half of the decade to include coloured backgrounds and images displayed in monumental sizes. He would later begin composing portraits from multiple exposures and even constructing composite faces using multiple subjects, a commentary on similar methods used by German police.
One of the most celebrated photographers who worked in the former East Germany, Ulrich Wüst trained formally as an urban planner in Weimar before taking up photography in the late seventies as a means for studying the development of cities. In the nineteen-eighties his work began examining life in his socialist homeland, the result being a critique of the East German urban planning philosophy (we talked more about this here).
At the same time, he also focused his lens on the people inhabiting the Socialist landscape, showing humanity’s resistance to conformity in private life. He showed that inside the apartments of socialists were budding ecosystems of individualism — standing in contrast to their nation’s regime of sameness.
Despite this criticism, the East German government would only ban one of his works, Die Pracht der Macht (The Pomp of Power), highlighting the struggle he faced until 1990 of existing within a framework whereby the state exerted significant influence over aesthetic. “If I had always focused on presenting my work in public, I would have had to stop working,” Wust has written. “My approach was to work for myself first.”
Candida Höfer is best known for her photos of expansive and empty interior spaces. Another alumnus of the Düsseldorf School, her work stays true to the school’s approach to photography as a conceptual tool in the documentation of places. Her interior landscapes are often of public institutions and are direct, no muss captures with exact ratios and technical precision. Her images, usually absent of people, bring out the grandeur of the structure and make it the dominant characteristic.
Her large-format images are typically taken from a high vantage point and straight on to her subject. The first member of the Düsseldorf School to embrace color photography, all her images are a feast of color and contrast, made even more glorious through her strict use of only natural lighting.
Another critically acclaimed East German photographer, Helga Paris specialised in capturing daily life in the German Democratic Republic. Like many of the her GDR peers, Paris taught herself photography after being inspired by family – in her case, two aunts that were prolific photographers from the 1940s to ’60s. After connecting with the East German art scene she started photographing herself with a Czech-made camera, the 6 x 6 Flexaret.
By the nineteen-eighties, her work focused largely on people and street scenes. Photographing in Berlin was much easier than when she shot in Halle, where people were unhappy to be photographed without their consent. This forced Paris to approach subjects and engage in conversation before photographing. The resulting photographs lose the voyeristic allure of pure street photography, but gain a truth and beauty only possible through familiarity with the subject. While the careers of some East German artists failed to survive the Deutsche Wiedervereinigung (German reunification) in 1990, her documentation of its people continue to make Paris a celebrated photographer even as time continues to erode the memory of the GDR.
The third member of the Düsseldorf School on the list, Axel Hütte is best known for mysterious minimalistic landscape images. He applies much the same principles embodied in the work of Candida Höfer to the medium of nature rather than institutional spaces.
Hütte’s landscapes are carefully constructed and geometric compositions often utilising long exposure times. He abandons the typical expansiveness of traditional landscape photography, opting instead to focus on specific and isolated aspects of nature without any trace of civilization or narrative. The result are daring, evocative nature motifs that allow the viewer to lose themselves in time and space.
If you have a favorite photographer you’d like to see on the feature, let us know in the comments below.