Occasionally, there is a place and time — a school, a salon, a section of a city — which seems to be a focus for more than its share of talented artists. One such place was the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf between 1973 and 1987. During that time, Bernd Becher was professor of photography and Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Ruff, among others, were the students. Each of these students has followed their teacher to prominence in the international art scene. The work of each, though clearly different from the others, is just as clearly influenced by the work of Bernd Becher and his wife, Hilla, who work together as a team. The work of one of these students, Candida Hofer, is currently on exhibit at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art through January 6, 2007. This exhibit, which consists of 50 chromogenic prints spanning her 30-year career with a concentration on recent work, provides Utah a rare opportunity to see contemporary fine art photography from the international scene.
When I first saw the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, they seemed outside the familiar context of the American photographers I knew, so plain as to make Walker Evans appear romantic. Nine gray water towers arranged in a grid like a catalog. They were, in the museum I was visiting, hung next to a photograph by Hamish Fulton, the “walking artist” whose work is clearly conceptual in nature. The concept behind the stark, flatly lit, hulking relics of industrial architecture depicted in the Bechers’ photographs, however, is simply that they are making a catalog, or typology as they put it, of every kind of vanishing industrial structure: cooling towers, silos, lime kilns, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, gravel plants and many more. They are always the same size, the same shape, have the same tonal palette, and are arranged in the same, or a very similar way.
By contrast, Hofer’s photographs are in color, sometimes vivid, sometimes muted. The images in Candida Hofer: Architecture of Absence at the BYU MOA are mostly square depictions of architectural interiors. The subjects, especially the ornate interiors of European museums and libraries, often look unfamiliar to an eye accustomed to American interiors. The relationship of Candida Hofer’s work to that of her teacher Becher sometimes appears to be like that between the dull grey of the outside of a geode and the glittering crystals found inside it. For instance, in Spiegelkantine Hamburg IV 2000 (Employees Café for Der Spiegel magazine, Hamburg, Germany), orange pyramids grow from the ceiling towards the delicate wire mesh of the chairs below amidst dizzying patterns of repetitive wall and floor motifs.
Despite their apparent slickness, these images are not taken like standard commercial photographs, which usually use elaborate lighting setups to make it seem as if you are seeing the room in natural light. Photographs such as Hofer’s, which really are taken with available light, show an entirely different relationship between the sources of illumination and the objects or spaces illuminated. Light sources become glowing presences, such as those hovering over the Bourse Du Travail Calais IV 2001 (Worker’s Stock Exchange, Calais, France). Windows to the outside such as those in Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana Venezia I 2003 (National Library Marciana, Venice, Italy) radiate light that destroys not only their frames but also the floor of the large hall facing the viewer. The large statue in the foreground to the right seems to cover herself against the brilliance.
Both Hofer and the Bechers use a standardized, common viewpoint for all of their photographs. Although Hofer has many photographs of the same types of spaces – museums, libraries, etc. – she does not create the kind of exhaustive typologies that the Bechers are known for. There is, though, a sameness to the approach to the spaces in all the photographs – uniform viewpoint; camera the same height above the floor, a straight on perspective – which allows the viewer to concentrate on the geometric interrelationships of the elements within them and the spaces which they define.
There seems an occasional touch of humor in the objects our attention is drawn to in the absence of people. In Porzellansammulung Dreseden II 2002 (Porcelain Museum, Dresden, Germany) the huge, white empty hall contains at the far end a menagerie of life size white porcelain animals, mostly dogs, peacocks and geese seemingly contained behind velvet ropes. In the few works which do contain figures, such as BNF Paris XX 1998 (Bibliothèque Nationale de France/National Library of France, Paris, France) one is temped to draw comparisons with the work of her fellow student Thomas Struth. Hofer’s figures, however, are clearly beside the point in the image, blurred out of recognition, dwarfed by the space, and literally blending into the furniture. The space is the subject matter.
Before going to see Candida Hofer’s exhibit, take a moment to check out the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Seeing work like Hofer’s in context will add to your experience of it. For a more formal approach (and a more expert opinion) Virginia Heckert, associate curator of photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum and one of the curators of the exhibit will present a free lecture, “Contextualizing Candida Höfer’s Architecture of Absence” on Friday, Oct. 13, 2006 from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Museum Auditorium. Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence represents a rare opportunity to see contemporary fine art photography from the international scene in Utah. The exhibit remains on view through January 6, 2007.
Jim Frazer, originally from Atlanta, is a Salt Lake City-based artist.