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“Absence and Presence”

to December 2

Theory can be art’s worst enemy. The academic jargon that surrounds an exhibition can scare away potential viewers and mask the quality and content of the work on display. Although “Absence and Presence,” a collection of work by Bernd and Hilla Becher and the photographers who studied under them at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, is saddled with the tedious explication of Wulf Herzogenrath’s catalog essay, the show easily frees itself from such wordy constraints.

Herzogenrath identifies “three strands” running through the Bechers’ work: “first, the photography as a medium of documentational artistic action; secondly, typology, the pictorial sequence, the series, and, thus, pictorial comparison as the principle of their work; and finally, the architectural, functional, and, at once, historic-economic content of their photographs….” While the work fully supports such an observation, the photographs themselves speak plainly, raising basic questions about how people connect with each other and the natural world. And the photos do so as straightforward images of unremarkable objects.

Since the late 1960s, the Bechers have been exhibiting their documentary photographs of industrial structures. For Typology, Factory Halls (1991), the first piece in the WPA show, the Bechers photographed nine factory façades, displaying the framed images in a three-by-three grid. The Bechers use a uniform camera height and angle, and an even light in capturing the factories, which share a family resemblance in roof line, vertical supports, and fenestration. The consistency of the artists’ vision allows their role to recede and the differences in the façades to come forward.

By giving primary importance to the object itself rather than to subjective interpretation, the Bechers have turned photography back toward its earliest days, when cameras were thought of as machines through which objects drew themselves upon light-sensitive surfaces. The hand of the artist was absent, the object pre-eminent.

Each of the other artists in “Absence and Presence”—Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth, and Petra Wunderlich—adapts this exacting view, photographing without comment mundane subjects and vistas rather than dramatic or decisive moments. With scientific detachment, they investigate social reality by collecting and presenting images of homes, streets, and public spaces. The pictures simply attest to the existence of their subjects where and when they were photographed, leaving the viewer to extract further meaning.

Certainly, the work can be admired for aesthetics alone. The exquisite silvery-gray tones of the Bechers’ Gas-Holder, Berlin-Schneberg (1992), the saturated colors of Jörg Sasse’s toaster and bread box (W-88-05-02, Ratingen 1988), and the sheer size of Thomas Ruff’s Stars (1990) appeal first to the eye. But the photographs share more than theory or beauty: They also evoke existential themes of contingency, balance, and connectedness.

The Bechers’ work details a historical, vanishing landscape— structures like coal bins and winding towers that conjure a once world-transforming industrial age now finished. Quiet, enigmatic, and shuttered against the natural light that describes their façades, the factories bear witness to a complex network of production that fueled a century of change.

Thomas Struth’s streets and Candida Höfer’s meeting halls are quiet, too. But they brim with social dynamism as documents of spaces in which people still live and work together. In Via Giovanni Tappia, Naples 1989, Struth aims his lens down the middle of the street, where cars, buildings, and laundry lines crowd around in messy array. In Gotanda, Tokyo 1987, a jumbled visual field of signs and electrical cables weighs upon the road.

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Höfer’s images—except for the cropped perspective of Cecilienhof Palace Potsdam I (1991) and the overt symmetry of Karlsruhe Residence (1991)—look as if she snapped the shutter casually just after walking into the rooms. They depict assembly halls and conference rooms poised for activity, tables and chairs ready in tidy rows (Red City Hall Berlin I, 1991; Museum Karlshorst Berlin I, 1991).

Like the Bechers, both Struth and Höfer position their cameras in quite ordinary places in relation to their subjects. Their images offer straightforward views so recognizable that the photograph as object becomes transparent, permitting the viewer to step into the scene and stand in the photographer’s place.

Thomas Ruff’s interiors work in a similar way: We see only intimate details of an unpeopled domesticity, but human presence resounds throughout them. Interior 1980, a photograph of a curio cabinet filled with wedding pictures, statuettes, and small boxes, has the familiarity of an old storybook. Three portraits of children hang on a wall above an empty chair in Interior 1979, a specific arrangement of objects that calls to mind the universal connections within families and between generations.

Jörg Sasse underscores this time-bound nature of things. By titling his still lifes with the date and place he found the objects and made the photographs, Sasse emphasizes the scenes as existing at a particular time, in a particular city. He also implies that they may no longer exist today.

The placement of objects within Sasse’s photographs is just as temporary. Two potholders gently overlap as they hang from red hooks against a tiled wall (W-88-02-03, Bad Salzuflen 1988). A ceramic elk stands atop an armoire, baying at a stuccoed ceiling (W-90-07-01, Mettmann 1990). Because the objects are ordinary, they call attention not to themselves but to their arrangement and to how they ended up before Sasse’s camera. Who placed the red vase high upon the shelf (W-91-03-11, Bochum 1991) or collected so many garish shower caps (S-86-06-01, Düsseldorf 1986)? In whose house do these objects reside, and are they still there like that?

Even the wall-size prints in the show speak about precarious balance, especially between the natural and artificial worlds. In Axel Hütte’s Balford Tower, London (1991), an enclosed walkway floats four flights above the ground between two poured-concrete office buildings. Against the vacant sky, the walkway and a staircase that hugs one building’s exterior are suspended in midair, as if as likely to fall as to remain in place. The white sky in Andreas Gursky’s St. Moritz (1991) provides an ominous backdrop to the crowded cafeteria, where diners are caught unaware between the photographer and the world outside.

Thomas Ruff’s Stars (1990) most profoundly sums up the themes of “Absence and Presence.” A print Ruff made from a negative he discovered in an observatory, the work transforms found object into rich metaphor. The image is both familiar and mystical. Standing before the print, which is over six feet tall, the viewer stares into a light-studded void. The ultimate context of our existence, this space at once promises and vanquishes life.

Although an exhibition solely of German artists, “Absence and Presence” has important local significance, too. With this show, the WPA rededicated its ground-floor space as an exhibition gallery and sent its Bookworks store back into the basement (indicating art’s victory over commerce?). The WPA also changed the exhibition’s title, originally “Distance and Proximity,” to thematically connect this work with the Washington-based photography it exhibited this summer. Particularly relevant to this show are Ken Ashton’s luminous photographs of his Columbia Heights, Arlington, neighborhood and Kim Kirkpatrick’s examination of city and suburban landscapes. Both photographers empty their images of figures, but fill them with human presence, detailing the ways we connect with each other and our surroundings.

Space constraints didn’t allow the exhibition, which was organized in Germany and co-sponsored by the Goethe-Institut, to be seen in its entirety. The exhibition is presented in two parts, the first on view in October, the second until Dec. 2. The work of some photographers was divided between the installations; several images were left out completely.

The split damages the show. After all, the exhibition itself functions as a kind of typology, allowing us to compare the work of photographers with a similar theoretical approach, but whose subject matter ranges from potholders and tchotchkes to palaces and galaxies. We know the show was organized around the shared vision of the photographers, but part of the show’s point is the divergent ways this theory has been interpreted.

At the WPA, viewers miss out on the opportunity to see each photographer’s work fully and examine the differences between artists. We cannot compare directly Struth’s portraits of city streets, now on exhibit, with his portraits of families living in those cities, which were shown in October. Viewers can currently examine Wunderlich’s photographs of stone churches, but her images of stone quarries did not make it into the exhibition at all. And none of Simone Nieweg’s photographs of vegetable gardens, which examine the human/nature relationship in a context unique among her colleagues’ work, is on view during this second half of the show.

Nevertheless, what is on view at the WPA is powerful stuff, reaching to the foundations of societal values by depicting the everyday. Currently, there’s no dearth of commentators, even self-doubting photographers, who’ll argue that electronic media have made photographs old hat. Their view is belied by “Absence and Presence,” solid evidence indeed that still-photography retains its power to inform and provoke.