Düsseldorf photography How a school changed the way we see

A photograph of Becher student Jörg Sasse;
A photograph of Becher student Jörg Sasse; | © Jörg Sasse, VG Bildkunst, Bonn/courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

In Düsseldorf, the photographer Bernd Becher and his wife Hilla Becher trained artists who went down in art history as the Düsseldorf School of Photography.

Anyone talking about German photography nowadays is likely to think first of the often large-format images produced by exponents of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, which these days enjoys worldwide renown as a hallmark of high artistic standards and a comprehensive rethinking of artistic photography. The name Düsseldorf School of Photography, however, which is used largely synonymously with Becher class or Becher school, is a somewhat problematic label describing what originally was a documentary tradition of photography that has changed radically since the 1970s. For precisely this reason, Düsseldorf School of Photography is no longer an appropriate term to designate a specific style.

First chair in photography in Germany

Formally speaking, the name refers to 87 photographers who between 1976 and 1998 studied under the internationally renowned photographer Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the city’s art academy. Becher’s appointment as a professor there in 1976 also marked the establishment of the first chair in artistic photography at a German academy of art. His first six students were Tata Ronkholz, who abandoned her artistic work a number of years later, Volker Döhne, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. Andreas Gursky switched from Essen to Düsseldorf in 1981. 

Although photography was still not considered to be art in the European context until well into the 1970s, it was doubtless clear to the first students right from the outset that they no longer really had to battle for recognition as artists. They were able to fill a void which Bernd and his wife Hilla Becher – likewise a well-regarded photographer – had created for them together with other artists. Nonetheless, it still took more than ten years for the young photographers to gain international acknowledgment through leading exhibitions and the art market. The considerable fascination around the world with the Düsseldorf School of Photography is due above all to the impression that its exponents use new and modern techniques to “paint”. It was not only the form that approximated painting: portraits and landscapes also returned to the works of the Düsseldorf artists – the only difference being that they were composed not with a brush but with a mouse.

A single label for all photographers

Giving a uniform label to the students of the Düsseldorf School of Photography reveals a remarkable parallel between the history of the term and the history of the art market. Leaving aside those photography artists who were successful on all levels, the Düsseldorf School of Photography label was also used particularly by art dealers to profitably advertise less successful graduates of the Becher class. The reference to the teacher and thus to the documentary tradition of the visual language that had become historically established in New Objectivity was used as a promise of excellent quality and potential appreciation in value. The term has taken on a historical element in the meantime: photography – not only in Düsseldorf – has developed a tremendous artistic diversity to which no single label can be applied any longer.

But what were the formal characteristics of the most prominent representatives of the Düsseldorf School of Photography? Though renouncing the systematic approach followed by their teachers, the first generation of Becher students does at least reveal a certain affinity to them in the sense that they would select a particular motif which would feature in a collection of black-and-white prints. Influenced by American photography, students in the 1980s then developed series of colour photographs. Another formal step was the introduction of large-format photography, used for the first time in 1986 by Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff. The new prints were created in connection with the laboratory of Düsseldorf advertising firm Grieger. Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky used this new form of photography soon after. The next step concerned framing: using the patented “Diasec” technique, the photograph was directly bonded to the acrylic glass, without any space in-between.

At the boundaries of photography

One radical change to the conventional understanding of photography was introduced in 1987 and likewise originated in Düsseldorf. For the first time, Thomas Ruff used digital techniques to alter the photographic image. His motifs are characterized by extreme diversity – Ruff works not only with newspaper cutouts but also with abstract motifs, pornographic images and also portraits. In somewhat more moderate fashion by comparison, Andreas Gursky also explores the boundaries of the medium with his images, which he has edited digitally since 1991: he creates monumental individual images of landscapes or huge indoor spaces which are produced in comparatively small quantities; just one reason why they appear to follow the artistic tradition of “masterpiece” painting.

Ruff and Gursky have become established on the art market with phenomenal success, with the result that art critics use the ironic label Struffskys to describe the ubiquitous presence they have achieved together with Thomas Struth, especially on the American market.