Albert Renger-Patzsch and Objectivity

Albert Renger-Patzsch : Photograph by Karl Benscheidt Jnr

Renger-Patzsch’s pictures are striking for their directness, their distinctive compositions and their curious  muteness. They certainly don’t confirm the adage “every picture tells a story.” They appear devoid of narrative, cold, uninviting, totally unsentimental and lacking in hyperbole. They assert the autonomy of photography from painting and drawing. In his words:

Let us leave art to artists, and try, with the tools of photography, to create photographs that can hold their own through their photographic qualities.[1]

Mannilaria Valida 1920s - Estate of A Renger-Patzsch (Ubu Gallery, NY)

Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) studied chemistry in Dresden after serving in World War I and then led the photographic services department at the offices of the publisher Folkwang-Verlag from 1921-23. He had learnt photographic technique from his father and in the 1920s was able to merge his optic and scientific experiences to produce botanical pictures in the manner of Karl Blossfeldt who produced a landmark series of pseudo-scientific plant photographs in the period 1915-1925.

Renger-Patzsch’s plant pictures reveal a desire to make an objective record of real, everyday objects. They demonstrate the application of what James R. Hugunin[2] called “… the objective camera eye.” At first they invoke Christopher Isherwood’s[3] “I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording…..” however Isherwood then went on to say “…not thinking.” Although he rejected the appellation artist, Renger-Patzsch was self aware and thinking – about how to frame the composition, present information objectively rather than subjectively and to work with a maximum level of precision. Tight in-camera cropping of the surrounding context and the virtual absence of the human figure produces a sense of timelessness in his pictures that has both played a big part in the establishment of his reputation and given voice to criticism. Renger-Patzsch’s contemporary, Walter Benjamin was sharply critical of this stripping out of social and figural context. From this standpoint the photographer’s work can be seen as a fetishistic preoccupation with the disconnected object.

Viaduct 1928

In his work the aesthetic self-sufficiency of objects is obvious. But the pictures are silent: perhaps, as Karsten Harries[4] says “… the solace of mute matter is the last refuge of authenticity.” Perhaps we can sense that by attenuating the perception of shape, structure and the surface in this way, his photography aims to somehow show the thing-ness of things.

Renger-Patzsch’s mid 1920s pictures are contemporaneous with the largely German Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) art movement. Something of a reaction to the pervasiveness of Expressionism and Abstractionism in art, the Neue Sachlichkeit focused on realism in the presentation of everyday, prosaic things. Renger-Patzsch has come to be regarded as a key proponent in the movement’s photography annals.

Fagus Werks SW corner - No 7 in the series

Around the same time it was his insight to transfer his aesthetic technique from small objects to much larger objects so that architecture and landscape photography also play a major part in his body of work. His reputation in this regard was cemented with the Fagus Werks series, around 54 pictures from April 1928[5] commissioned by the Benscheidt family who had engaged Gropius and Meyer to design the original factory project before World War I. Renger-Patzsch took architectural photography seriously and he concerned himself to make a detailed study of the architecture in  preparation. Significantly though he resisted a briefing session with architects probably because he realised the authorial voice could well be a distraction from his photographic intentions.  In addition to the architecture, the Fagus series includes detail images of the machinery, processes and materials that Renger-Patzsch realized were equally part of the experience of the works.

Fagus Werks - Shoe Forms Pattern Room

The Fagus series is an early instance of the “photographic project” where the spirit of a site or place is studied pictorially in some detail. The photographer’s impressive architectural shots found rapport with Gropius and one or two of them became his favoured representation of the building.

Renger-Patzsch’s landscape pictures like Beech Wood, are again, non-sentimental and carefully cropped to take the viewer into a space that Reinhold Misselbeck calls sublime.[6] The composition of tree trunks devoid of foliage allows an organic sense of order – that probably would not have been visible in other hands – to be perceived. The photographer himself offers a more direct description of his approach to the creation of images:

I base this on reality as space. This space should be cropped in such a way that it produces a well-ordered picture when projected onto a plane.

Beech Wood 1936 - Ann and Jurgen Wilde Collection, Cologne

[1] Cited in Renger-Patzsch entry – Stepan, Peter Ed. (2005) Icons of Photography: The 20th Century

[2] Hugunin, James R “Subjektive Fotographie and the Existentialist Ethic” (Afterimage January 1988)

[3] Isherwood, Christopher (1939) Goodbye to Berlin

[4] Harries, Karsten “Is Stone Today More Stone Than it Used to be?”

[5] Reggi, Annemarie(2001) Fagus: industrial culture from Werkbund to Bauhaus

[6] Renger-Patzsch entry – Stepan, Peter Ed. (2005) Icons of Photography: The 20th Century

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