Important Photographs and Artists of Düsseldorf School of Photography

Progression of Art

Cooling Towers

Artist: Bernd and Hilla Becher

This image brings together twelve photographs, of equal size, of industrial cooling towers, arranged in a grid, creating what the Bechers' called a "typology". Photographed with a tableau approach, and filling the pictorial frame, each cooling tower is represented in sharp objective focus that allows each structure, as art critic Will Martin noted, to "be identified for its individual features. In much the same way that one might read different faces in a portraiture exhibition."

The pair continued photographing structures of this kind over the following decades, producing, in the words of art historian Michael Collins, "a magnificent history of the fast-disappearing modern archaeology of the West's industrialisation" (though the Bechers sometimes photographed new industrial structures too). To obtain the precise detail that individualizes each tower they used only large format cameras to create a fusion between their "typologies" and the philosophical interests of the contemporary artistic avant-garde. Indeed, their families of "anonymous sculptures" lent themselves well to the tenets of Minimalism, which celebrated functionalism and purity of form above all else, while the idea of repetition was a central column of Conceptualism.

However, whereas Minimalism and Conceptualism lent themselves to the "de-skilling" of art, The Bechers' punctilious approach to their "sculptures" placed great importance on technique. They summarized their practice thus: "The particular strength of photography lies in an absolutely realistic recording of the world. This sets it apart from all other image media; photography can do this better than anything else. And the more precisely it depicts objects the stronger its magical effect on the observer." The Bechers were thus able to contribute to development of contemporary art practice without compromising on artistry. Indeed, they succeeded in transforming attitudes towards photography within the elitist cliques of the fine art world.

Gelatin silver prints (Twelve parts, each: 20 × 16 in. (50.8 × 40.6 cm)) - Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, USA


Portrait 1986 (Stoya)

Artist: Thomas Ruff

Taken the year after he had completed his studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, this photograph was part of Ruff's Portraits (1986-91), an extended series where the subjects - each titled with the series' title, the year and the subject's name - were friends and colleagues of the artist. This large color portrait shows Stoya, a young man, his head and upper chest and shoulders filling the frame. Against the white background, he gazes with a composed but blank expression toward the viewer. The highly realistic representation - without any identification or expression of personality or feeling - conveys the overall effect of a utilitarian passport photo. As Ruff said of the image, "I wanted to do a kind of official portrait of my generation. I wanted the photographs to look like those in passports, but without any other information."

The art historian Douglas Eklund observed that Ruff was the first of the Düsseldorf photographers "to dramatically enlarge the size of his pictures - a move intended to refer his works to the scale of traditional art as well as that of the highway billboard - and to face-mount them directly to a sheet of Plexiglas to enhance their sheen and objectlike quality, two technical innovations widely imitated in contemporary photography."

Ruff returned to the Portraits series in 1998 stating, "I don't believe we can still make portraits in the conventional sense of 'representing a personality' today [...] Which is why I imitate portraits." At the same time, art critic Régis Durand argued that, because of their impersonal neutrality, the portraits "undercut any attempt to look for clues that would allow one to go beyond them." Ruff's Portraits series acted thus as both a record - or "typology" - of a family of individuals and as a blank, lifeless, record of faces and bodies. In this respect, his Portraits invite the spectator to reflect on the photographer's quest for authenticity in the photographic portrait.

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom


The Smith Family, Fife

Artist: Thomas Struth

Struth started out as a painter and studied under Gerard Richter at the Düsseldorf School, but, feeling that he was "making big super-realist photographic paintings that just seemed pointless and a bit stupid," he turned all his creative attentions towards photography. In 1976 he joined the first photography class offered by the Bechers, and his first images were of the empty streets of Düsseldorf (his hometown). Struth produced his first family portrait series between 1983-84 having collaborated with the psychologist Ingo Hartmann on the photographic anthology Familienleben (Family Life).

This image comes from his later Family Portraits series. It depicts the Smith family, its eight members standing or sitting closely together in their sitting room. The room is furnished with overstuffed chairs, bookshelves, and a number of artworks on the wall. Yet all sense of a harmonious domestic environment is called into question by the group's guarded expressions. Indeed, their unsmiling faces look dispassionately into Struth's lens. As art critic Richard Sennet wrote, "We relate to these images as we might appreciate strangers in a crowd; we feel their presence without the need to transgress boundaries by demanding intimacy or revelation [...] people guard their separateness even as they present themselves directly to us." Static and frontally staged, the portraits translate the conventions of 19th century photography into a contemporary idiom. As Struth said, "The public have always been drawn to them because they see a reflection of themselves, their own families. They sense, I think, that these are just condensed slices of an epic."

Struth's approach to portraiture is less uniform than his contemporary Thomas Ruff. In a 2008 interview with the photojournalism magazine Foto8 he explained how he adhered to "a very small number of rules". These included the use of a large format camera, relying only on natural light sources, and that the family group all look into the camera. As he said: "I usually make a choice for the location, and then people can position themselves on the stage that I've selected - which most of the time is where they live [...] Within that setting there are different freedoms - they can wear what they want, position themselves next to who they want - they can smile or not smile." He added that his sitters "can also object to publication and say we don't like it - don't use it. If they approve the family get one first edition print signed and framed as a gift."

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom



Artist: Thomas Struth

This photograph depicts the Pantheon in Rome, its circular structure rising above small groups of tourists and individuals, as the building's classical architecture, which fills the frame, takes on a monumental presence. Taken with a large format camera, the image captures the architectural details, allowing the viewer, like the tourists in the middle ground, to linger over the image and discover and experience the ancient Roman temple. Struth said, "I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything." At the same time, the light from the oculus, or circular opening, in the building's massive dome gives the image a liminal quality, capturing, as art critic Sean O'Hagen wrote, "some sense of the invisible or, at least, the latent. Whether it be restlessness, calm or the strange hinterland between boredom and contemplation that often holds sway in both places of worship and temples of culture, his photographs are always about this looming 'other' that hovers just outside the frame."

The image was part of Struth's Museum series which he began in 1989. Struth's goal was to record people visiting famous European museums and galleries. The impetus for the project originated in 1987 while working on his Portrait series. While photographing Giles Robertson in his Edinburgh home, he noticed that the art historian was looking at a book while seated in front of three historical paintings: "this suggested to me the potential for including a marriage of a contemporary moment and a historical moment in one photographic plane," recalled Struth. The series was further informed by his experience of living in Naples and Rome where he observed how the enjoyment of art was very often connected directly or indirectly to a religious experience. As he said, "The gallery is a kind of unclear, in between space for many people [...] I wanted to capture that interim sense of place." Struth, however, rejected the claim that his work belonged to the category of Conceptual Art (as some critics had suggested). He had wanted to ask the more rudimentary question of whether these classical structures were "like cemeteries or a living organism where people can nourish themselves about aspects of human existence?"

Chromogenic print - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York



Artist: Andreas Gursky

This photograph shows an aerial view of the industrial harbor in Salerno, Italy. The overwhelming but orderly panorama of parked cars creates a diagonal plane that cuts from center left to the lower right, intersected by another diagonal of shipping containers, extending horizontally into the sea. In the upper third of the photograph the city, its apartment complexes along the coast and expensive homes built on the overlooking foothills, curves along the harbor, as the mountains rise in the distance. The color is both expansive and orderly, as the rows of white cars pop with beats of red and black, while the shipping containers in orange, yellow, with notes of blue, create an alternating and lively rhythm. The overall effect is what art critic Sean O'Hagen called an "epic panorama" that conveys "the scale and reach of global capitalism, the thrust of 21st-century commerce."

Gursky claimed that it was only once he'd examined the contact sheets that he picked out "that pattern, that pictorial density, that industrial aesthetic." Indeed, the German suggested that Salerno offered him a turning point in his career: "It opened up a new sense of possibility, stylistically and thematically," he said, "I tried photographing other ports, but I realised that wasn't what had made the Salerno image work. It was the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail."

The distanced but sharply focused view, with its overwhelming details, creates an almost abstract geometric grid which only reveals its recognizable details upon closer inspection. No element within the image is prioritized, as both the ships sitting along the dock, the mundane containers, and the scenic mountains with the city at their base are presented with the same detached equanimity. As art curator Peter Galassi wrote, "High art versus commerce, conceptual rigor versus spontaneous observation, photography versus painting [...] for Gursky they are all givens - not opponents but companions."

Gursky suggested that "Visually, everything was completely at odds with what I had been taught [...] Bernd and Hilla Becher had told me to avoid photographing with sunlight, blue sky or strong shadows. But I thought the warm sunlight here made for something quite kitsch. Also, up until this point, human beings had been the focus of my work - but here there were none in sight. Yet I was overwhelmed by what I saw: the complexity of the image, the accumulation of goods, the cars, the containers [it] was the balance between great scale and a huge amount of sharp detail." Art historian Douglas Ekland described the image as "a beehive of feverish production and consumption that effaces historical reflection in favor of the spectacles of technology and tourism."

Chromogenic print face-mounted to acrylic - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco


Rhine II

Artist: Andreas Gursky

This monumental photograph - roughly 6-by-13 feet in size - depicts the Rhine River near Düsseldorf as a broad gray horizontal band shimmering between the bands of green grass. The silvery waves of the river create a kind of correspondence with luminescence of the clouded sky, while the strips of green and gray create a sense of horizontal movement. Devoid of human presence, the landscape takes on a near abstract simplicity, its geometric bands commanding the viewer's attention from a distance, while the scale of the work allows the viewer to discover, close-up, the texture of the tuffs of grass and the choppy waves. Gursky said that this is his favorite photograph as "It says a lot using the most minimal means [...] for me it is an allegorical picture about the meaning of life and how things are."

This image was one of six in the photographer's Rhine series, where he said, he "wasn't interested in an unusual, possibly picturesque view of the River Rhine, but in the most contemporary possible view of it." Employing digital editing, he erased two buildings on the other side of the river and dog walkers strolling along the bank. Detached from narrative and human elements, the work becomes, as art critic Sean O'Hagen put it, "an image of somewhere that does not really exist," emphasizing "the detached looking" of the Düsseldorf School. Speaking of the Rhine River series, Gursky spoke of how the Bechers had instilled in him the idea of objective space: "While my images are all comprised of many details - which you can explore in depth because of the high resolution - that's not what they are about. Each one is always a world of its own, created."

C-print mounted to acrylic glass - The Museum of Modern Art, New York


Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen

Artist: Candida Höfer

This large photograph depicts the Abbey Library, established in 963AD, at the monastery of St. Gallen in Switzerland. Taken from a high vantage point, the vaulted Baroque ceiling fills the top third of the image, as if the viewer were hovering just beneath its dramatic and elaborate frescos. At the same time, the view down into the library hall, with its glass display cases full of books, is flattened, an effect that emphasizes the serpentine curves of the balcony running along the bookshelves and the pattern of the wooden floor. Höfer created a series of six photographs of the library of which this was the first. As art historian Rachel Taylor wrote, Höfer's series addressed "institutions that define and structure western culture [...] The library series in particular focuses the viewer's attention on spatial systems of order designed to reflect and foster optimism in intellectual progress."

Höfer studied with the Bechers at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie between 1976 and 1982. She adopted their approach on her libraries and cultural institutions series (though she claims she is generally "less pragmatic" than her mentors). While her images usually were devoid of human presence - Höfer has stated that she preferred her work to be "empty of people" and that she had "found over time that spaces say more about people when people are not in them" - this photograph depicts a number of people working in the library, but as ghostly figures, their movements blurred due to the long exposure time required by using only natural light. As art critic Ari Messer wrote, "her perfectly lit photographs of building interiors and archives [have] been rightly called an 'architecture of absence.'" Also a noted teacher, Höfer's work, emphasizing what Taylor called "technical perfection and a strictly conceptual approach," continues to influence contemporary photography.

Color photograph on paper - Collection of the Tate, United Kingdom

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Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Düsseldorf School of Photography Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. .
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 16 Jul 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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