**Lots of strong personal opinion coming up – be warned!**
Working from the Düsseldorf School of Photography, German duo Bernd and Hilda Becher (Wikipedia) worked collaboratively for decades, profoundly influencing modern photography today. They cofounded the ‘Becher School’ and count some of the best known (and wealthiest) modern ‘art’ photographers among their students (Andreas Gursky, Axel Hutte and Thomas Struth being but a few).
To begin with, I am going to illustrate this article with images which I feel are the more visually appealing/interesting (by Gursky, Hutte and Struth).
Bernt died in 2007, whereas Hilda passed away only very recently, on the 10th of October 2015 and so it is not surprising that thoughts are turning towards their contributions and their legacy. On that subject, Professional Photographer wrote and article in 2011, titled ‘Has the Düsseldorf School Killed Photography‘ and, while not academic in nature, it does capture many of the criticisms levelled at the Becher/Düsseldorf School. Clearly it’s an opinion piece, but it is likely to strike a chord with some readers.
I’m going to build upon the article in my next paragraphs, which will make more sense if you’ve read the article.
I believe that the Becher’s were true trail blazers and I think it would be wrong to somehow hold them responsible for what they (arguably) set in motion. What the Becher’s unwittingly offered with their unemotional typological and matter of fact approach was the potential for industrial production and authenticity, simply by copying the mechanical act and citing the precedent. As the Professional Photographer article states, when this potential met with the means to enter into ‘production’ (digital photography), the outcome was perhaps not surprising: a deluge of unimaginative, soulless, repetitive work.
To make matters worse, this derivative material has for years been masquerading as ‘enlightening’ and ‘thought provoking’ while actually demonstrating none of these qualities. I would argue that such work has for some time been wearing old laurels as badges of contemporary authenticity; a lifetime ‘pass’ if you will. Empty phrases like ‘this work challenges (or ‘questions’) the idea of XYZ…’ are thrown around as if there is more to come (when there isn’t): That. Was. It. ‘Pleasing aesthetics’ is a criticism that ‘dorfers (yes, I just made that up) might level against visually more compelling work and it would have merit were they providing something else. However, several decades after the Düsseldorf School cut its path, I am not sure that nearly enough of its devotees do. But people will keep buying, because its proven and its safe. It is these things precisely because it has become a formula.
Perhaps rather than ‘killing photography’, what the Düsseldorf School has done is highlight the limitations of many critics and judges; after all, they are the ones who continue to reward work that represents little more than another cookie from the cutter. The Düsseldorf ‘machine’ has arguably created a defensible creative ‘out’, allowing critics and judges to remain on comfortable, safe ground. Its a bold person who exclaims, ‘but the emperor has no clothes’. The Bechers have inadvertently made it as easy for these art custodians as they have empty pseudo-intellectual photographers with nothing to say, who produce their work to a now exhausted brief. If digital photography has facilitated the ascendancy of ‘technology operators’ (just look at the number of technology/IT magazines masquerading as photography publications), then surely the Düsseldorf School has facilitated the use of banal imagery as a veneer for a disconnected and cynical ‘discourse’. The merging of the two has allowed for an unprecedented level of emptiness at every level.
I would also argue that the fact that so many of the most accomplished contemporary art photographers studied directly under the Bechers is something worthy of further thought. It strikes me as the industrialisation of photography, with the educational establishment serving as factory and a few key characters as directors. The movement appears to have spawned a myriad of subordinate factories in the form of educational establishments all over the world (especially Western Europe). And their output is largely identical. Just go to Les Rencontres d’Arles and you will see what I mean. It is also suggestive of a certain ‘control within the industry’, where certain people decide ‘what is hot and what is not’ – get their seal of approval and you’re good to go.
I’m now going to show a series of images that seem to typify some of the more scathing words I have used.
No matter how I look at this range of issues, I cannot help but feel that it is bad for photography. Has it killed it? No, of course not. Photography will continue to evolve, new ideas will come and the ‘Becher School’ will become referred to as a historical movement. However, that seems to be a long way off and I did consider the Oskar Barnack award to be one of the last bastions holding out against the tide; a tide that neither offers something new nor something enriching. Some of you may recall my disappointment at the 2015 Oskar Barnack Award winners, which led me to root through the top 50 and see what talent had been overlooked. My issue was not so much that the winning entries did not impress me, but that they failed to stand out as remotely different to an ocean of other winning entries in various competitions and festivals over the last five years. They also struck me as having almost no real binding human content. They could have been produced by a computer in response to an algorithm and that makes me rather sad. Isn’t art quintessentially human? Doesn’t there need to be reflections of ourselves and each other in our work? When these things are absent, what does it mean? Maybe it does mean that art is dead in that sense, but I remain optimistic that the tide will turn. But when?