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German photographic discourse « Previous | |Next »
May 19, 2011

Sarah James in her Photography's Theoretical Blind Spots: Looking at the German paradigm in Photographies (vol. 2 No. 2) explores the differences in the Anglo-American and German photographic discourses. She says that:

German photography is often considered to be a “photographic photography” that makes clear its technical facility. Much of the most influential recent German photography – from Bernd and Hilla Becher, to Thomas Struth or Michael Schmidt, or the less well-known Evelyn Richter and Rudolf Schäfer – demonstrates a highly precise documentary vision, alongside a distinctive tactility, which seems to stem from a desire to derive experience from a photographed reality.

She adds:
By the 1970s, art historians and critics in Germany such as Klaus Honnef, Enno Kaufold, Berthold Beiler, Peter Pachniche, Ulrich Domröse and Friedrich Herneck had begun to lay the foundations for a theoretical and historical discourse on photography. A consistent characteristic of this German criticism is found in the desire to picture photography’s particular vision, objectivity, and aesthetic in a dialectical fashion. The main currents of this scholarship sought to analyse photography in terms of its visual, perceptual, “photographic”, documentary character, and the medium’s unique attachment to the real.

The German avocation of photography as objective as opposed to subjective, and the location of its definitive nature in its crucial attachment to reality, as opposed to an inherent meaninglessness runs through German photographic thought.

She adds that the dominant theoretical approaches to photography in Germany – which emerged in the 1970s, and have developed to the present – differ quite significantly from those in the Anglo-American context. In the latter:

in the 1970s photography entered the art world, an art world that was largely defined by conceptualism. The medium became entangled with the cultural theory, semiotics and poststructuralism that were dominant in the art pro- duction and theory that have since come to be synonymous with the “postmodern”. As much photo-art was bent on the deconstruction of past modernist values, this situation resulted in the equation of photography with postmodernity, and the consequent tabooing of terms such as “truth”, “autonomy”, and the complex politics of photography’s “objectivity”.

So much so that in American and British photographic discourse “objectivity” has become a dirty word, chastised as one of modernism’s positivist progeny, unsustainable for postmodern sensibilities, characterized by their aesthetic suspicions of the real world. With it, the idea of photography’s crucial attachment to the real has been buried. If postmodernism ushered in a discourse of the “anti- aesthetic”, then photography came to symbolize its most anti-aesthetic form.

The Anglo-American artis tic practices that employed photography from the 1960s, and the theories that developed around them, were defined by their critique of Greenbergian modernism and the dismantling of its founding ideologies; visuality, autonomy, aesthetics being the central “myths” under attack. If experiencing and thinking art aesthetically were rendered problematic in the Anglo-American context from the 1970s onwards, with the rise of conceptual practices deliberately set upon demolishing the restrictions of aesthetics and formalism with a new political and cultural content.

In Germany, the postmodernism and poststructuralist critique affiliated with it, which was perhaps the dominant critical discourse in France since the late 1960s and in the United States and Britain since the middle of the following decade, never really gained much of a following. Instead, “hermeneutics, reception theory, and various forms of neo-Marxism reigned supreme among German humanists”.

In the German context, this suspicion towards a highly aesthetic or romantic photography led to a new cultural privileging of photography’s particular relationship with the real and the emergence of an investment in refiguring the autonomous spaces and experiences peculiar to photography; particularly in its documentary forms. Importantly, unlike the photography affiliated with Anglo-American conceptualism, even many German practitioners who engaged in sophisticated conceptual strategies – such as the Bechers – were united in their renewed commitment to realism and the objects of photography, to the possibilities of the medium’s capa- city for truth and objectivity.

There was also a renewed commitment to an ideal central to modernism: art’s autonomy. Crucially, though, the autonomy sought by post-war German photographers was not that of the l’art pour l’art but the damaged autonomy that art was now understood to require more than ever While much of the British and American conceptual photographic art that developed in the 1970s relied heavily upon introducing textuality into the photographic practice, via captions and other textual elements, the majority of German practices remained committed to the visual language of photography itself, without any added textual appendages.

Yet, unlike the modernist documentary photography that went before, in this work the photographic medium was in no way regarded as transparent, nor was the photographic image presented as simply reflecting the properties of the real. In relation to these practices the intention of the photographer was no longer important, nor was the notion of the documentary photographer as witness. Instead, beyond the individual, what is recoverable in the aesthetic experiences of much German photography is an investment in the dimension of looking, and the discursive knowledge that it produces.

German photographers continued to share a belief in photography’s fragile objectivity, and the idea of “photographic seeing”, pursued through a highly skilled and rigorous photography.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 4:03 PM |