The end of the postwar era shook the Western half of divided Germany like an earthquake, with culture, rock music, and avant-garde art at the epicenter. By the 1960s, the waves had grown in intensity to shake politics, society, and day-to-day life as well. Photography was affected relatively late. It wasn’t until June 1979 that the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn’s exhibition In Deutschland revealed the effects the revolutionary changes had had on photographic aesthetics. This new photography questioned both the specific forms of visual language and the photographer’s stance toward visible reality, challenged the worn-out methods of approaching a subject and the formulas of photographic categories. And lest we forget: at stake was also photography’s precarious position within the fine arts. If artistic photography’s primary aesthetic interest until then had been in the “artistic” image of things – and the cult of the individual picture – a more sober, more exact and documentary gaze now came into focus. The most poignant sign of this shift was the clear rejection of the individual image in favor of the principle of the series. A small number of ambitious young photographers from all parts of West Germany and Berlin lent momentum to the movement.
The discerning photography quickly expanded across the country from Bonn, later traversing national boundaries to find allied initiatives in the US. These parallel movements abroad had a different genealogy but were headed in the same direction. In Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher were the promoters and key figures of the development. Their typological representation of little-noticed industrial architecture – in the mode of a visual story without a plotline – paved the aesthetic way forward. Significant motifs of this new photography were empty urban streets, inconsequential everyday architecture, sometimes, though less frequently, people, dismal public and private interiors, rough and jumbled nature views, and many unsightly byproducts of industrial civilization. Fairly “unattractive material,” in Peter Galassi’s opinion, yet nevertheless a succinct commentary on the long ignored underbelly of modernity’s affluence, individual freedom, consumption, and glamour. “This movement” was “documented in two distinct but related exhibitions: New Topographics, organized in 1975 by William Jenkins in Rochester, New York […] and In Deutschland, [In Germany], organized in 1979 by Klaus Honnef in Bonn, which presented works by thirteen Germans, including Heinrich Riebesehl […], Schmidt, two of Schmidt’s students, four students of the Bechers, including Struth.“ (Peter Galassi,“Gursky’s World“, in: Andreas Gursky, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, 2001, p. 13.) The other three were Candida Höfer, Tata Ronkholz, and Axel Hütte – the first major appearance of the Becher School. Wilhelm Schürmann was responsible for lighting the first spark for In Deutschland, while Ulrich Görlich and Wilmar Koenig (the two Schmidt students), Johannes Bönsel, Hans-Martin Küsters, Martin Manz, and Hartmut Neubauer contributed in turn. Schmidt and the Bechers – the latter being the only Germans represented in New Topographics –, provided the earliest connections to the advanced US scene – to Robert Adams and Stephen Shore respectively.
With In Deutschland – the subtitle, Aspects of contemporary documentary photography (Aspekte gegenwärtiger Dokumentarfotografie), made plain its intentions – German photography was able to finally free itself fully from the cultural shackles of National Socialism. Photography’s complicity in the Nazi regime was long a decisive obstacle to its artistic recognition in Germany. It was no coincidence that, in the wake of the surprise success of In Deutschland, the speedy rise to stardom of photographers like Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth, Michael Schmidt, and others coincided with the rise of the medium. “German photography,” once almost a derogatory title, became a trademark of sorts.
With its compressed reprise of the In Deutschland exhibition – featuring images by Görlich, Höfer, Hütte, Riebesehl, Ronkholz, Schmidt, Schürmann, and Struth – Kicken Berlin kicks off a series of photography shows on the theme. The images of In Deutschland retrospectively reveal a country searching for its identity. War and the Nazi era were still lodged in the buildings and in people’s minds. The fragile mixture of conflicting notions is reflected in the photographers’ emphatically subjective yet no less authentically rendered views. The images are thus an expression of a “documentary style” (Walker Evans) in more ways than one. A style that attests to attitude.