Medium of Modernism
Reconstructing Space: Architecture in Recent German Photography
At the Architectural Association, 36 Bedford Square, London WC1 until 22 May. The accompanying 192pp book by Michael Mack is available from AA Publications (£25)
It is easy to see why architects like photography. Photography configures space and objects with all the artifice but none of the inconvenience of the building process; this works at the practical level of making those publishable images which pass for silk purses but originated in sows' ears, and at a more cerebral level, of making architecture more and more like something which Walter Benjamin thought he described - and thereby 'intellectual'.
On its own, the exhibition 'Reconstructing Space: Architecture in Recent German Photography' goes little further. There are a few good images: some intriguing, such as Andreas Gursky's Dusseldorf Airport, which recalls Caspar David Friedrich's Monk by the Lake; some conscious intellectual constructions, such as Susanne Brugger's interplay of the divergent rationales of urban planning and photographic framing. But the selection is too small and limited to give more than a gloss; no trends emerge, no themes are developed; Benjamin, that ubiquitous and overused theorist of anything no-one else can categorise, is the viewer's only friend; and the only escape route, a series of industrial facades taken by Bernd and Hilla Becher.
But it is an escape route because it opens the door to the much larger study of German photography undertaken by the exhibition curator Michael Mack, in the publication which coincides with the exhibition. The Bechers' oeuvre underpins much of the study; many of the subjects were taught by them. The image in question is a composite of 21 identically sized prints of the short facades of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century industrial sheds (see below). All come from that swathe of industrialisation between the Rhine and the Channel, an implicit reminder of the relationship between economic progress and territorial expansiveness. The sheds must vary somewhat in size, although the framing neutralises that: they are reduced to something even more basic than a facade, becoming a diagram of a shed's cross section and a statement of identity. It reminds the viewer of the range of strategies with which the shed structure could be clad - Classical, Teutonic or what Pevsner might have called 'honest'.
Michael Mack, in an essay in the book, identifies the rise of industrialism with an incipient cultural pessimism in Wilhelmenian Germany; photography played a part because the Werkbund used it to disseminate ideas for exemplary factories. The Bechers' facades reverse this idealism. In one of those turn-arounds between viewer and viewed so beloved of commentators on photography, the observer becomes an active interpreter of German industrial policies.
Photography's relationship with the subject/object gaze is a characteristic which seems particularly endearing to Germans. German Idealism developed, more or less, the intellectual channels by which we understand subject and object. If, as Mack indicates, modern German history also has a relationship to photography, the ways of representing and looking which it offers have some deep place in whatever German national identity might be. Andreas Gursky's association of Friedrich's monk with a figure on airport tarmac is an example of the former; the Bechers, or even more, Dirk Reinartz's images of former concentration camps, testify to the latter.
These two strands come together in various images of photographs of urban decay, such as Michael Schmidt's of Berlin, or Laurenz Berges' rooms in the Russian barracks at Potsdam. Either could be stills from films by Wim Wenders or Fassbinder; that they could not be from a Pasolini movie, although it might deal with similar themes of life in poverty, is more than just a reminder that Berlin is not Rome. It is also indicative of a different way of looking.
In this light various others among the featured photographers fall into place. Both Christine Erhard and Thomas Demand play in different ways with the whole notion of subject and object. Demand, for instance, makes a cardboard model of a car-park look like a computer rendering, while Erhard's human figures lurk in spaces which could come from a Doctor Who set, with all the style of the Florida Shopper.
Photographs can hardly embody the enormous emotive power of paintings. But they can highlight the uncanny feelings that play on our hidebound views of art, artifice and concept, and the relationship between viewed and viewer. As such they are a medium of Modernism, and nowhere can this be more piquant than in Germany.
Jeremy Melvin is a writer and teacher