For the second part of the exhibition series Sheroes of Photography, Kicken Berlin presents a retrospective of the work of Tata Ronkholz (1940–1997) to coincide with Gallery Weekend 2021. Ronkholz was one of the few female protagonists of conceptual, objective-documentary artistic photography in the male-dominated Dusseldorf School. On view are works from all of her important series, such as industrial gateways, Rheinhafen Dusseldorf, beer halls, snack stands, and display windows.
Following the year’s successful start with the group show Sheroes of Photography (Part I), we now turn to focus on an individual artist. Our exhibition project stems from the desire to give female photographers the visibility they deserve. The growing interest in women’s photographic oeuvres is also manifesting itself in international initiatives such as the show New Women behind the Camera in New York (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Washington, DC (National Gallery of Art), which will be opened in the summer, or in the extensive donation of works by female photographers by collector Helen Kornblum to the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
With her strict, frontal series of urban industrial architecture, Ronkholz most consistently embodied the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher. She created her first shots of industrial gateways as early as her first classes at the Dusseldorf School in 1977, before switching into Bernd Becher’s classes in 1978. Like the Becher duo, Ronkholz worked strictly in black-and-white and with a classical photographic format: using only daylight, a strictly frontal perspective, and without people. Her early series of industrial gateways explored everyday and industrial architecture while already having the attributes of typological studies. Furthermore, the serial method of depiction manifested the abstract visuality of functional architecture. Ronkholz’s interest in industrial culture on the Rhein and in the small, local businesses servicing daily life led her to her photographic subjects. Her depiction of snack stalls and stores have preserved quotidian cultural history and now-lost memorabilia of the material world: magazines, meals and drinks, wallpapers and curtains, advertising and window displays.
The series about Dusseldorf’s Rheinhafen, which Ronkholz made in cooperation with Thomas Struth 1979–1980, can also be understood in the traditions of documentary preservation and of the “industrial archeology" of historical buildings and urban structures. The artists’ motivation was driven by the plan to redesign the urban harbor area (today the Dusseldorf Medienhafen) in the mid 1970s. After Struth withdrew from the project in 1980, Ronkholz went on to document the interior spaces such as the grain silos, whose duct lines looked like surreal sculptures.
Before starting her studies in Dusseldorf, Ronkholz trained at the Werkkunstschule Krefeld in architecture and interior design. Her furniture designs ranged from modular “furniture landscapes” to a lighted table (also shown in the exhibition) with the characteristic oversized glass lens of light- and object-artist Adolf Luther.
Though her work was publically shown early in her career, such as in exhibitions like Klaus Honnef’s legendary In Deutschland. Aspekte gegenwärtiger Dokumentarfotografie in Bonn (1979), recognition remained low. Several color photographs augmented her selective cannon of subjects in the 1980s. She ended her artistic career in 1985. With the growing historical interest in the Dusseldorf School, Ronkholz’s strict conceptual approach too gained attention. Today her work is held by many German and international museums.