“After Industry,” Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, through Nov. 27

October 8th, 2016  |  Published in *, Early Fall 2016

Frank Gohlke, “Grain Elevators”, Cyclone, Minneapolis, 1974, gelatin silver print. Collection of Gregory and Aline Gooding. © Frank Gohlke. Used with permission. Courtesy of Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica.

The theme of the third edition of the FotoFocus Biennial is “Photography, the Undocument.” It “offers a chance to think about a fundamental aspect of the photographic medium: its assumed ability to document as well as its less-recognized tendency to distort and reshape, intentionally or not, the world it records,” according to the returning artistic director and curator, New York-based Kevin Moore. He continues, “‘Photography, the Undocument’ explores photography as an artistic mode of representation and, coincidentally, a tool of rhetoric and persuasion. By its very nature, photography raises political as well as philosophical questions: what do we assume to be real, what is true, and how are different realities represented in photographs used for various purposes–for marketing, political influence, and social activism?”1

Moore curated eight exhibitions for this festival of photography, including “After Industry” at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery. With works drawn from the New York-based collector and Ohio native Gregory and Aline Gooding’s collection, the exhibition of 14 artists is weighted toward U. S. and German artists working in the 1970s, but it also spans nearly a century, starting with the German Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) in the mid-1920s and ending with American Mark Ruwedel’s (b. 1954) 2014 Forested Railroad Grade.

Frank Gohlke, “Landscape with Irrigation Canal, Albuquerque, New Mexico”, 1974, gelatin silver print, 13 ¾” x 13 7/8”. Collection of Gregory and Aline Gooding. © Frank Gohlke. Used with permission. Courtesy of Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica.

In Moore’s short essay in the brochure2  accompanying the exhibition and illustrating all of the photographs (a necessity since there are no labels in the gallery and no checklist), he writes that the title “After Industry” “is a play on the phrase ‘after nature,’ an archaic term for still life painting.”His stated goal was to “present a variety of historical perspectives on nature in relation to the man-made environment.”3 

That’s enough verbiage (some unconvincing to my mind) so let’s get to looking. 

Let me start at the beginning. Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) is the earliest artist in the exhibition and one who perfectly illustrates the curator’s thesis. He was associated with the German movement that dominated the arts in the Weimar Republic before the rise of Hitler: Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity. In photography the New Objectivity “brought a sharply focused documentary quality”4 to the practice.

Renger-Patzsch’s photos range from straightforward views of factories and other man-made structures to equally deadpan views of nature. According to Moore, Renger-Patzsch looked “to reveal the structural commonalities between nature and industrial architecture.”5 This is clear in comparing the tall spindly and leafless trees silhouetted against a barren landscape of Landschaft bei Hamborn (Landscape near Hamborn), 1929, with the phallic smokestacks of Industrie-Schornstein, 1925.

Two other photographers who unequivocally support Moore’s thesis are Frank Breuer (b. 1963) and Lynne Cohen (1944-2014).

Frank Breuer, “Untitled”, 2000, two c-prints, 18 ½” x 39 5/8” each. Collection of Gregory and Aline Gooding.

Breuer has photographed dead-on two featureless warehouses, one branded with a Nike logo and the other with the name of Philip Morris. Their rectangular masses, sitting unnaturally on the horizon line, are underlined by bands of fields of corn and mown hay (Nike) and unidentifiable vegetation and fallow field (Philip Morris). There’s a wide expanse of uninflected sky in both. Nature sandwiches the man-made.

Cohen brings nature indoors; witness the mural of a stand of trees covering a wall and door in the Veterinarian’s Waiting Room, 1977. 

Although Moore contends in the first sentence of his essay that “After Industry explores tensions between nature and industry,” nature is not always evident in the photographs.

For example, the American Walker Evans (1903-1975) was well known for his straight-ahead, yet still sympathetic, I would argue, style. He is represented by six photos, likely done for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s documenting rural poverty.

Moore notes, “Evans’ blank approach—neither glorifying nor condemning—to the vernacular environment would have a great impact on more conceptually based photographers of the 1960s and 1970s.”5 

I take issue with Moore’s assessment that Evans does not “glorify” or “condemn” his subjects; I think he endows them with a certain nobility. For example, Evans’ Teague Hardware, 1936, could be the façade of a palace, not an emporium for hammers and saws.

Both Evans and Renger-Patzsch could be seen as precursors of the German couple Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla (1934-2015) Becher who would themselves become so influential on the next generation of photographers. The Bechers became known for their flatfooted documentation of industrial structures such as winding towers, water towers, grain elevators, and factory complexes in as straightforward a manner as their countryman Renger-Patzsch had (in some instances, they re-photographed what the older artist had done a generation earlier) and then ordered the black-and-white prints (only two of the photographers in the exhibition use color: Breuer and Wessel) into what they called “typologies.”

The Bechers’ importance was recognized by William Jenkins when he included them in his seminal 1975 exhibition: “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY. Extending its influence, this exhibition has been reconstituted in various forms, starting in 1981.7 

In the catalogue, Jenkins wrote, “The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion, and opinion.” The photographers exhibited a “rigorous purity, deadpan humor, and a casual disregard for the importance of the images.”7 

Moore acknowledged the exhibition’s importance in his essay and by the inclusion of four of the eight young American photographers in “New Topographics”: Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, and Henry Wessel, Jr. The others were Joe Deal,Nicholas Nixon, John Schott,and Stephen Shore.

The influence of the Bechers on the younger American artists of the “New Topographics” exhibition might be seen in the correlation of one of the Bechers’ early projects, the 1977 Framework Houses book, which documented houses built between 1870 and 1914 in the iron-producing region of Siegen, and Wessel’s ironic Forty Real Estate Photographs, 1990-1991. As anonymous as the Bechers’ framework houses, Wessel’s are modest and reasonably well cared for, although several have boarded-up windows, suggesting foreclosure. The one thing Wessel’s dwellings all share is a decided lack of curb appeal and the unlikelihood of being showcased in a realtor’s window.

Henry Wessel, Jr., “Forty Real Estate Photographs”, 1990-1991, C-prints, 6” x 9” each. Collection of Gregory and Aline Gooding.

It’s also impossible to look at Wessel’s houses without thinking of Ed Ruscha. It’s a connection Jenkins credits as an inspiration for the “New Topographics” exhibition, citing Ruscha’s self-published artist books of photographs, such as 26 Gasoline Stations (1962), Various Small Fires (1964), and 34 Parking Lots (1967).

All the artists chosen for this exhibition share the irony and detachment of the photographers in “New Topographics,” but the work of some have “a distinctly romantic charge, particularly the images juxtaposing nature and decay,”8  as Moore wrote in the brochure essay.

Lewis Baltz, “Commercial Building”, Pasadena, 1973, gelatin silver print. Collection of Aline and Gregory Gooding. © Successors of Lewis Baltz. Used with permission. Courtesy of Gallery Luisotti, Santa Monica.

There Moore identified this aesthetic attitude in “(Albert) Renger-Patzsch’s (1897-1966) tender ‘sapling’ (Das Bäumchen, 1929), a classic romantic symbol of survival. Baltz’s primal Continuous Fine Circle; (Robert) Adams’ (b. 1937) lonely eucalyptus overlooking Signal Hill; John Divola’s (b. 1949) expressionistic, apocalyptic scenes of vandalism. More recently, the abandoned ‘exurban’ houses and re-forested railway grades of Mark Ruwedel (b. 1954) evidence not only decay but rejuvenation—nature as an irrepressible constant in relation to industry and prefabricated construction, and the industrial age as only a brief episode within the longer course of human history.”9

Mark Ruwedel, “Dusk #21 (Antelope Valley #230)”, 2008, gelatin silver print, 11” x 14”. Collection of Gregory and Aline Gooding.

Well, that’s five artists with work with “a distinctly romantic charge,” by Moore’s count. Five out of 14. I can suggest two more who layer a veil of romanticism over their insistently banal subjects.

Bill Brandt’s (1904-1983) A Snicket10 in Halifax, 1937, shows a glistening gray brick pathway that seems to stretch up a grade and into the distance with a forced perspective. There’s no one on the path, but I began to conjure a scenario about where it might lead and who might walk it.

I had a similar reaction to the work of a student of Bernd Becher11 Ursula Schultz-Dornburg (b. 1937) who is represented by six photos of dilapidated bus stops in Armenia taken in 2001 and 2002. They clearly show her mentors’ influence in their frontal (with one exception) and undramatic views. These bus stops constitute a typology. They have the detachment of the Bechers’ work but there are people waiting. Although too far away to see them clearly, I sense they have stories to tell.

I was surprised that half of the artists in “After Industry” had that “romantic charge,” but anytime nature plays a role, it should be expected. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised to be humming Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Isn’t It Romantic as I left the gallery.

–Karen S. Chambers

“After Industry,” Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery, Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati, OH  45202. 513-977-4165, www.westonartgallery.org. Tues.-Sat. 10 am-5:30 pm; Sun. noon-5 pm. Open late on Procter & Gamble Hall performance evenings. Admission is free.

 

FOOTNOTES

1 FotoFocus press release.

 

2 The essay ends abruptly without a discussion of the work of Bill Brandt or Frank Breuer. Since the closing date of the exhibition on the cover of the brochure is “November 27, 2017,” I’ll hazard a guess that the brochure needed a bit more copy editing.

 

3 Kevin Moore. After Industry. 2016. Cincinnati, OH. FotoFocus Biennial, The Undocument.

 

4 Sergiusz Michalski. New Objectivity. 1994. Cologne. Benedikt Taschen quoted in “New Objectivity,” Wikipedia.

 

5 Moore, op. cit.

 

6 “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” has been seen in various incarnations at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, Great Britain, 1981; Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, and the George Eastman House, Rochester, NY, Los Angeles Museum of Art, 2009; the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam, and Bilbao Fine Arts Museum in Spain, 2011.

 

7 William Jenkins. New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Catalogue. Rochester, NY; International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House.

 

8 Moore, op. cit.

 

9 Ibid.

 

10 A snicket, in Northern English, dialect is a passageway between walls or fences.

 

11 Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1976 to 1996 (school policy prohibited Hilla from joining the faculty) and created what became known as the Düsseldorf or Becher School of photography.

 

Comments are closed.