Frank Breuer - Warehouses and Logos At the Photographers' Gallery, 5 Great Newport Street, London WC2, until 12 July
Bernd and Hilla Becher began documenting types of industrial architecture in 1958. Their pictorial method and strategies of display were seminal to the critique of the photographic archive - the archive being, almost from photography's inception, used by agencies of the state to classify visual 'knowledge' and inform the exercise of executive power.
The Bechers' project continues to this day - fulfilling the archive's inherent (if impossible) logic of completion - with the same basic methodology: only photographing in black and white, with an almost complete absence of the human subject, tight compositional framing of isolated architectural forms, and serial protocols of image display.
In its repetitive, exhaustive nature, the Bechers' work is undoubtedly melancholic - seeming to both resist and acknowledge the inevitable disappearance and renewal of the industrial landscape. Frank Breuer is the latest progeny to emerge from Dusseldorf, where the Bechers teach their photographic ideology. Breuer, a 'Master Student' of this education, uses colour photography to document warehouses (top) and corporate logos (right), encountered during journeys across northern Europe.
The logos, usually supported by large free-standing structures, are like totempoles to global capitalism. They are designed to be seen from afar, but Breuer moves in close, disorientating their scale and destabilising any sense of where, or who, the audience for these signs might be. Their address is literally above and beyond us.
It's potentially a politically significant aspect of the work, but an aspect one is reluctant to concede. As is befitting the essentially bureaucratic nature of the archive, these images reveal little about the photographer's personal relation to these symbolically loaded sites. Instead, an 'objective' or impersonal pictorial stance is constructed - the photographer seeking to minimise any subjective or emotive renderings of the object's form.
All of Breuer's images, like most of the Bechers', are taken under grey skies - creating shadowless representations. This concern for the unimpeded articulation of the object, combined with the serial nature of the image's display, recalls minimalism (and in a quite different sense, art's interest in the found object). It is an aspect of Breuer's work that complicates its association with the landscape legacy of 'New Topographic' photographers such as Lewis Baltz and Stephen Shore. The surrounding landscape in Breuer's logo images, I would suggest, is insignificant.
Most of the companies featured are familiar - McDonald's, Mercedes, Mitsubishi - but some are not. And a fleeting intrigue arises out of imagining the commercial activity described by these unfamiliar names and their typographical form.
In part, this work is the beginning of a history of corporate identity. But unlike the Bechers', it has yet to accrue either an archaeological or a melancholic significance. This also applies to the warehouse images which are aesthetically the more satisfying. Again, the image is cropped tight to the rectangular forms emblazoned with the company name or logo. They are structures for which the union of form and function has produced the most perfect of advertising platforms.
Breuer's work cannot be separated from the legacy to which it is aligned. If the Bechers' own work was, and still is, a strategy of resistance, it is difficult to find the same opposition in Breuer's updating of the tradition. There is little sense of a critique of either the world documented or the form of documentation he has chosen to inherit.
It is as if the archival mode has become fetishized, and any anxiety about its nature forgotten. Yet, within its genre, Breuer's work is a cultured example, and there is some comfort in knowing that such documentation unobtrusively continues. It is probably the most valid articulation of the archive's inexhaustible, reiterative, nature.
Also showing at the Photographers' Gallery are more than 70 Polaroids by Walker Evans (see below) - late works of a photographer who came to prominence during the Depression, fascinated with the vernacular of American life. But, disappointingly, the Polaroids are shown alongside conventional prints, as if to affirm rather than alter our understanding of Evans' aesthetic.
Paul Tebbs is a writer and critic