“Eigenzeit” by Elger Esser

Having recently learned about Elger Esser through reading “Dusseldorf School of Photography” I decided to buy the photo book of Esser’s exhibition “Eigenzeit” which means “proper time” in German.  The term refers to the physical phenomenon of time dilation which is put forward in Einstein’s theory of general relativity.  The most famous example of time dilation is the hypothetical one of the twins, where one stays on earth and the other one rockets into space at the speed of light.  When the space travelling twin returns to earth he finds his brother aged considerably while he himself has aged very little.  Each experiences time differently and lives according to their own clocks.

The forward written by Groos and Schimpf effectively describes Esser’s photography in relation to the time dilation principle as does the various essays in the book.  In summary, the authors’ views is that Esser’s photos of historical landmarks and scenes evoke a sense of timelessness so that the viewer is unsure whether the photos are taken yesterday or hundreds of years ago.  According to the text this feeling is enhanced by the special processing technique that Esser employs.  This is made all the more interesting and subtle when you look very closely at the “Combray” and “Vedutas” photos to find clues of modernity.  A power line over an old bridge or the a very distant sky scrapper along an otherwise historic view of the Seine River in Paris.

The book is divided into six sections with each part being comprised of an essay followed by one fold out double spread photo which starts the series of photos under the same theme.  This format is very well thought out since Esser’s photos really benefit from the larger printing.  Too bad there are only six of these spreads in the book.  The photos in the “Wrecks” section portrays hand colored black and white photos of ships run aground.  Personally, I find the “Wrecks” photos a little too contrived.  In contrast the “Views” photos are also hand colored but feel less contrived and more authentic.  The photos are blown up to such a large size that the grain in the film become like pointillist dots.  It would be amazing to see these photos as larger prints.

“The Dusseldorf School of Photography” by Stefan Gronert

I bought this book to learn more about the famous Dusseldorf School of Photography.  The book does a good job of reinforcing and dispelling some myths about the school.  It consist mainly of large format printed photos and an essay titled “Photographic Emancipation” written by Stefan Gronert.  The photos are divided into three parts: part one focuses on the school’s founding gurus Bernd & Hilla Becher; part two its more famous pupils; and part three its lesser known practitioners.  There is a very well researched and comprehensive “Biographies, Exhibitions and Further Reading” section by Isabelle Matz and Maria Muller at the end of the book.

Stefan Gronert’s essay serves as a legend for the photos by covering the 11 approaches of “Photographic Emancipation”.  Although Gronert doesn’t spell out these 11 approaches exactly one can assume they roughly follow his headings.  These sections effectively sets up a dialogue between the artists.  Gronert points out that it was Axel Hutte who first started to do portraits but Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth who later became more well known for them.  The author also compares and contrasts: the library photos of Candida Hofer with Andreas Gursky; and the street photos of Petra Wunderlich with Thomas Struth.  Gronert seems to dedicate a special section to Thomas Ruff’s work due perhaps to his more diverse oeuvre.

The insights in Gronert’s essay adds more flavor to the photos.  Some examples being Thomas Struth’s pictures of pictures or as Gronert refers to them as meta photos.  These photos of paintings in museums (the bottom photo on the book’s cover) are given another dimension when you learn that each scene was methodically captured over and over until one image “fit the bill”.  This according to Gronert gives the photos a much more authorial constructed reality.  For me personally they look somewhere between staged and found.  Jorg Sasse’s “Speicher I” is a photo-sculpture and image database system that allows the viewer to organize photos by themes.  In this day and age of The Cloud it’s interesting to see how artist physically interpret these concepts.

The Photos

Here are some personal observations about the photos by the various photographers in the order they are presented in the book:

Bernd & Hilla Becher

In so much as the photos are seen to be reproductions of reality, the repetitive nature of the photos’ subject matter are also reproducing themselves as well.  The repetition also encourages you to stop seeing the subject matter all together and start seeing the abstractions.

Andreas Gursky

By having AG follow B&HB’s work in the book helps to emphasize B&HB’s influence of scale on AG’s photos.  This arrangement also helps to contrast the non-monumentality of AG’s photos when compared to B&BH’s .  In AG’s photos it is the tableaux that becomes the monument.  One of my favorite photos from this series is “Baharain I” for its “all over-ness” and abstraction.

Candida Hofer

In contrast to AG, CH’s focus is more on space and depth.  There’s also a fractal thing going on in the photo of the room with boxes on the shelves alludes to the further subdivision of space in to smaller and smaller modules.  He seems to use this compositional strategy quite frequently.

Axel Hutte

Perhaps it’s the influence of Gronert’s essay but AH’s work seem to contain the seeds of the work of his peers.  There are fractal like spaces, deep voids, all over hill side/jungle foliages and icebergs, atmospheric environments, objects in far off distances.

Thomas Ruff

First time in the book that portraits appear in the artists’ represented photos.  And also one of the first to incorporate found “objects” (space photos, jpegs from the internet) in his photos shown in the book.  As mentioned before TR’s photos cover a diverse range of subjects.

Thomas Struth

His work deals with the topic of public spaces in his museum photos and also private spaces in family portraits taken in homes.  In the former the people are seemingly unaware of their presence in the photos whereas in the later there is a direct confrontation between viewer and subject.  It’s interesting to see these polar opposites side by side in the book.

Petra Wunderlich, Laurenz Berges, Elger Esser, Simone Nieweg, Jorg Sasse

PW has a series of stone quarry and stone buildings which I like for their negative and positive spaces respectively.  There’s an awesome photo by LB called “Delmenhorst” that has a snow laden tree against a blue wall that looks like a silkscreened sky.  EE’s photos are very painterly and I particularly like the one of the ocean wave called “265 Dieppe”.  Of all the foliage themed photos I think SN’s are the most successful.  I particularly like “Garden Fence with Rug, Gelsenkirchen” which has an all-over and consistent feeling that is present in all her photos.  Three photos from Jorg Sasse which I absolutely admire.  There’s the photo of the yellow vase against a purple background that is very abstract and Escher-esque.  The volcano and the butcher photos (actually two photos) for their texturing and patterns.  And I also like the speeding train photo for the strong horizontal composition and color contrast.

Conclusion

The book serves as a good overall guide to the key figures of The Dusseldorf School.  It’s a good starting point to help the reader explore more about the individual photographers.  The book is also very effective at putting everything in context so that influences and offshoots can be seen more clearly.  Most importantly it enables the reader to discover and appreciate the work of the lesser known students of the school.