New Topographics refers to more than a visual tradition in photography. New Topographics examines a mindset that is distinctly Western: marking, mapping, conquest, enclosure, and control.  Land and territory has always been surveyed and catalogued in order to own and possess it. From the eighteenth century, people have been categorized and later photographed for the same purposes: put under surveillance, framed by the camera and captured for the purposes of classification. The first victims of this clinical gaze, as Michel Foucault expressed it, were the insane and those who had no power in the society. The first use of the “mug shot” took place after the uprising of the Commune in Paris in 1871, when the Communards were identified from the group photographs taken during their brief moment of glory. They were rounded up and executed.

The use of photography as a tool of surveillance had different implications and consequences,depending upon the time and place. In the early twentieth century, the obsessive interest in photographing people was driven by the desire to sort out and understand the teeming masses in urban settings and to catalogue the rural populations before they disappeared into modernization. Photography became a tool of industrial classification and identification that in Germany recorded the abrupt shift to a mechanized society. Photographers such as Albert Renger-Patsch carefully documented the new machine age and August Sander began an encyclopedic enterprise, a monumental project of photographing all the types of Germans in the 1920s.

The documentary projects of these photographers was interrupted by the Nazis and by the Second World War and it was to this “objectivity” of the past that post-war photographers in Germany returned. New Topographics photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher, teachers at the Dusseldorf Academy, took up the task of their German predecessor, August Sander, who was still working on his project of depicting Germans when Hitler was elected to office. Once Hitler failed to find the blue-eyed, blond-haired  “Aryans” in Sander’s vast catalogue, the dictator put an end to the artist’s project. In their “Topologies” projects, the Bechers took up the idea of documenting “types” but looked for types of industrial enterprises and their buildings: water towers, blast furnaces, storage silos, cooling towers and so on.

These old structures have an aging sculptural beauty, a rectilinear geometry characteristic of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The environmental contexts are often bleached out and the buildings stand alone, usually photographed from the same point of view and from the same distance. The simple and elegant black and white prints are displayed in grids which create a visual rhythm and an instant repetition which makes the viewer reconsider these old structures which are suddenly beautiful. Indeed the bare beauty of these structures, so similar and so different, is an ethical one and the “precision”of the Bechers’ dedication to finding and photographing these (somewhat nostalgic) buildings is considered by some to be a moral act of truth to counter the poison of the Nazi past.

These teachers in Dusseldorf and inspired many of their students to follow in their footsteps, including Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, and later Andreas Gursky (called collectively “Sruthsky”) photographed places and people (usually) in color. For Thomas Ruff, born post-war, the photographing of people did not have the political charge it did for his parents’ generation and he began to shoot his friends in the traditional “mug shot” style. Wearing ordinary everyday clothing, the subjects gazed impassively into the lens of Ruff’s camera. These full frontal faces are in strong colors, color that becomes more impactful when the photographs are greatly enlarged and dominate the viewer.

However, it must be pointed out that photographing people in Germany cannot avoid being an act in the shadow of the Nazi past. In a 2011 interview with Janet Malcolm in The New Yorker, Struth revealed that the Holocaust had a major impact on his work. His mother was with the Hitler Youth and his father fought with the Wehrmacht  but they seemed reluctant to come to terms with the cause they had served. “If you want to know what formed me, this is the big thing: the culture of guilt that I was born into and that surrounded me in my childhood.” According the Malcolm, Sturth understand his work to be a kind of  Vergangenheitsbewältigung (“coming to terms with the past”).

Like Ruff, Struth photographed people, but he did so in two ways. First, he photographed families with the same impassivity employed by Ruff. The family, (mostly heterosexual) is photographed in its natural habitat, a living room or a kitchen or a back yard, and the husband, wife, children, sometimes grandparents, stare intently into the camera. For the most part, like the friends and associates of Ruff, these are middle class families, casually displaying a fair degree of affluence. That said, Struth does not repeat the typologies of his artistic mentors, nor does he attempt to classify or document. Like Ruff, Struth redefined photographic portraiture, removing it from the traditional realm of self-fashioning and situating it in the category of documentation.

However, Struth became famous and immediately accepted, not because of his cityscapes or his family portraits but because of his enormously popular photographs of people in museums. Struth traveled to the major museums, most of them in Europe, and watched the pilgrims pausing reverently before the major works of art, usually paintings. He managed to capture the interactions between the people in the museum and the people in the paintings, often finding astonishing parallels between poses and postures and even clothing of the tourists and the painted characters.

In contrast, Gursky and Höfer are not interested in people.  Andreas Gursky, like Candida Höfer, photographs places and structures and like Höfer, if people are involved, they are subsumed into the formal digital manipulations of the photographer. It is typical of these German photographers that their work is frontal, the people stare at the viewer, the buildings confront the spectators. There is a coolness and detachment in these works; photography without the heat and commentary of many of the American photographers. According to Höfer, who moves back and forth between digital and analog photography,

I photograph in public and semi-public spaces that date from various epochs. These are spaces available to everyone. They are places where you can meet and communicate, where you can share or receive knowledge, where you can relax and recover.

Both Gursky and Höfer photograph in brilliant color and the influence of the Bechers can be seen in the underlying grid structure seen in their large prints. Neither Gursky nor Höfer deal with people. Höfer photographs things or to be more precise, the interiors of buildings and their collections of objects, bereft of people. Gursky photographs places, from a silvery stretch of the Rhine River banded in pristine green strips to a panoramic view of Giza to the Tokyo stock exchange. Gursky’s photograph, Rhein II, of the River sold in 2011 for $4.3 million, one of the highest prices for a photograph ever recorded.

For these post-war German photographers, a place or a person is a collection of conceptual squares that severely and strictly organize their images with have a heightened formality, perfect shapes, unreal colors, pristine lighting. The use of digital manipulation is particularly noteworthy in the work of Gursky who has taken photography into another realm of creativity. The use of the photographic unit as the basis for painterly intensification allows Gursky to place his huge prints in between billboards and landscape paintings, begging the question: what is a photographer in the twenty-first century—an artist who appropriates photographic means to create something else or a photographer who turns a photograph into a concept or a meditation upon the meaning of photography? The question is an open one.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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