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The Reality of the Functional:
Candida Höfer's photographic works in the Collection of the Deutsche Bank

Museum für Völkerkunde
Dresden I, 1999
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection
Museum für Völkerkunde
Dresden II, 1999
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection

Together with Martin Kippenberger, who was featured in an extensive essay in our last edition of db-art.info magazine, Candida Höfer will be representing German art at this year's Venice Biennial. The opulent volume Candida Höfer – A Monograph has just been published by Shirmer/Mosel. Maria Morais on the works of the most prominent female German photographer from the collection of the Deutsche Bank.

In 1931, in the following consideration, Bertolt Brecht called the value of photographing reality into question: "The situation becomes complicated, because a simple reproduction of reality says less than ever about reality. A photograph of the Krupp works or the AEG says next to nothing about these institutions. True reality has slipped over into the functional. The materialization of human relationships, for instance in the factory, no longer offers the latter. And so something does indeed have to be constructed, something ‘artificial,' ‘formed.' And thus art is indeed just as necessary."

In retrospect, Brecht's observation on art's role concerning photography seems like a dictum that could serve as a heading for the works of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their serial documentation pieces of industrial and residential buildings, free from any elements of expressiveness or self-portrayal, became a point of departure for a new generation of German artists who dedicated themselves to photography as an artistic medium. Candida Höfer, an early Becher student, counts among the most important representatives of this photographic school: in 1976, shortly after Bernd Becher became the first professor for photography in Germany at the art academy in Düsseldorf, the former advertising photographer, then 32 years old, applied for admission to the class.

Türken in Deutschland, Rudolfplatz Köln, 1975
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection


She introduced herself with an extensive photo series she'd begun in 1972 in Cologne, which took the life of Turkish guest workers in Germany as its subject. This cycle, completed in 1979, already embodied the larger photographic theme that would continue to determine all of the works to follow: the discrepancy between the alien and the familiar, the anonymity and individuality in the respective photographic motif.

In contrast to the Bechers themselves, who already employed the term "anonymous sculpture" early on for their architectural photographs, thus aiming for a redefinition of public sculpture, their students, who also, along with Höfer, included Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth, directed their attention to architectonic situations. Progressing from the idea that these spaces both influence and are in turn influenced by the public state of mind, their photographs of architectural settings aim to pick up on the conditions for public awareness and collective mood and make them available in a kind of archive.

Festspielhaus Recklinghausen I, 1997
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection

Thus, Höfer's photographed rooms at times resemble archaeological documents in which the viewer believes he or she can make out the apparent traces of a collective condition. It is not least this aspect of "wanting to make something visible," of the alien hidden within the familiar, which formed a decisive criterion for the collection of the Deutsche Bank in purchasing Höfer's works. Since 1990, the bank has been continuously amassing a representative cross-section of the photographer's works. One of the pieces in the collection, Bank Oldenburg I from 1998, could be understood as a symbol or even, nearly, as a reflection of bank's self-definition as an institution. The clear and seemingly empty safe room is in truth a container with countless small compartments which, together with the valuable objects locked away inside them, also seems to harbor the owners' desires, hopes, and fears.

Bank Oldenburg I, 1998
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection

In the process, Candida Höfer's photographs are not concerned with the serial principle of variation. Instead, she seeks out motifs for her individual photographs that mutually explain and comment upon one other in an effort to incite the viewer to reflect upon the subject matter portrayed. The artist's images are not determined by mere personal experience, but rather an investigation of the chosen motif carried out according to scientific principles.

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris XIII
1998
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection
Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris XVIII
1998
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection

The photographs of publicly accessible interiors that she has been making since the eighties are nearly always empty. Höfer deliberately photographs concert and lecture halls, libraries, cafés, sporting halls, museums, foyers, and waiting areas at eye level: in this way, the image's standpoint remains understandable. On a formal level, however, she does not limit herself to any particular perspective, and often varies the crops or selects diagonal views. The motifs, chosen in an apparently casual manner, clearly reflect the artist's interest in artificial situations. In her shots of interiors, various worlds meet and give rise to friction: in the spaces portrayed, everyday culture mingles with high culture.

Regarding the continuity of her working process, Candida Höfer remarked in a 1996 interview with Gerda Breuer: "For me, it's very important that I constantly stay with one theme." Even her series on zoos, which initially seems somewhat unusual, is another continuation of this involvement with the phenomenon of the alien in the familiar. Here, however, it can be observed in the juxtaposition of the artificial artifact (architecture) with nature.

Zoologischer Garten Amsterdam III, 1993
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection
Zoologischer Garten Stuttgart I, 1993
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection


While, despite the absence of people, the indoor and outdoor spaces in Höfer's early works converge with the human atmosphere pervading them, the photographs of zoos depict the exact opposite. To the same degree that the animals seem motionless, denaturalized, and alienated, the modern architecture of the Zoological Gardens, staged as it is for the visitor, appears lacking in function and out of place. Thus, the theme of space is extended to include another facet: in the zoo, visitors and animals move within a common corral that describes both an interior and an exterior. Yet the contrasts united here give rise to unease. The animals, reduced to mere objects of observation, contrast with the more dignified forms of landscaping and architectural setting.


Zoologischer Garten Stuttgart I, 1993
©VG Bild Kunst, Bonn 2003

Deutsche Bank Collection

At first glance, the apparent casualness of Candida Höfer's photographs might mislead the viewer. Soon, however, fissures become visible that reveal the artist's particular point of view. "For me, it's not a matter of portraying space as closely as possible to reality," Höfer says. Her view of reality does without effect or interpretation, yet it is never indifferent. In reproducing reality, she focuses on that which is obviously concealed, on the alienation that lies hidden within the apparently functional.


Illustrated volume:
Candida Höfer – Monographie, with an essay by Michael Krüger, Schirmer / Mosel, Munich 2003.

Translation: Andrea Scrima