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Photographic History and Theory: Analytical Essay

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Compare and contrast the work of two photographers of the New Sachlichkeit movement: Karl Blossfeldt, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzch, Alice Lex Nerlinger

Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) was a German art, literature, and musical movement that was most popular within German society from the mid 1920s to the early 1930s. The work of predominately German residents fell within the Neue Sachlichkeit movement. This included the work of Karl Blossfeldt, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Alice Lex Nerlinger.

This essay will focus on the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, how it played a role in the utilisation of photography as an educational tool as well as distancing photography from pictorialist ways. Two notable photographers within the movement Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch will also be discussed along with their similarities, differences, work and theories and their contribution to the photographic community within Germany.

Politically within Germany the Neue Sachlichkeit movement fell within the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) period. During this time Germany faced many problems such as World War I and the resulting hyperinflation crisis. (Kaes, et al., 1994)

The term ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’ is thought to have first been written and documented in 1923 by G.F. Hartlaub. Hartlaub used the term to classify post-expressionist paintings within one of his exhibits at his gallery, Mannheim Art Gallery. (Schmalenbach, 2015)

A notable idea concerning the development of the movement comes from one of Wilhelm Lotz’s essays within a magazine Die Form (The Form) ‘Film and Foto’. Lotz explores the role that the University of Marburgs photographic archives had on the movement’s development. Since the archives were created as a tool for visual investigation and analysis they therefore acted as an objective form of photography. It can be seen as to why the Neue Sachlichkeit movement has similarities since it too focused on details of objects to an objective extent. (Stelter, 2011) Art historian Kurt Wilhelm- Kästne summarises this.

“In photography, Sachlichkeit expresses itself as a sharp reproduction of the object through clear articulation and near isolation from surroundings and background, penetratingly even lighting, the banishment of as much shadow as possible or its utilization as a strong outlining element, and above all, a clear, distinct representation of objects with a clearly arranged formal structure.” (Stelter, 2011)

Additionally, A group called The German Werkbund had a role in the adoption of Neue Sachlichkeit principles. The German Werkbund (1907-1932) were a group that formed as a response to perceived difficulties in German society. This included the rapid industrialisation and modernisation of Germany. (Campbell, 2015) The group targeted architecture, design and photography in hopes to preserve national culture and utilise them to assist in the needs of modern society. (Stelter, 2011)

Albert Renger-Pazstch was a prominent photographer that created work that which applied to the Neue Sachlichkeit style. He contributed a wealth of ideas and knowledge around the nature of photography. Renger-Patzsch’s work was typically identified by close cropping, symmetry and motifs. (Janzen, 2015) He believed that subjectiveness had no place in photography, that being expressive and emotional through photographic forms were completely unacceptable and impure.

‘Let us therefore leave art to the artists and let us try to use the medium of photography to create photographs that can endure because of their photographic qualities – without borrowing from art’. Albert Renger-Patzsch on art and photography (Simms, 1997)

He sought to bring a new view on photography to society by aiming to establish it as a new form of perception (this perception being the new objective). Renger-Patzsch did not believe that photography had any affiliation with beauty, aesthetic qualities and did not believe that it belonged in the art world. (Gelderloos, 2014) Some of Renger-Patzsch’s photographs have style choices that are similarly seen in the Marburg archives.

Figure 1 and Figure 2 draw comparison on the notion. (Stelter, 2011) By promoting this methodology and objective documentary photography Renger-Patzsch, a freelance and press photographer as well as a teacher, (Encyclopedia Btiannica, 2019) contributed greatly to separating photography from previous pictorialist ideas within photography. (Pfingsten, 1997)

Fig 2: Albert Renger-Patzsch, plate ten, from Das Chorgestül von Kappenberg, Berlin Auriga Verlag, 1925, (Stelter, 2011)

Fig 1: Plate fifty from Bernhard von Tiechowitz, Das Chorgestühl des Kölner Domes, Berlin: Deutschen Vereiens für Kunstwissenschaft, 1930, (Stelter, 2011)

Similarly, Karl Blossfeldt another German artist whose work is described as Neue Sachlichkeit used photography as a tool for his students. From 1898 to 1930 Blossfeldt was a teacher at the Unterrichtsanstalt des Königlichen Kunstgewerbemuseums Berlin (The Institute of the Royal Arts and Crafts Museum Berlin) when he first began utilising photography to engage and better inform his students. (Murata, 2015) Blossfeldt wrote about this in 1929 recalling the effect of his enlargements on his students.

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“This enlargement then proved to be most useful to me in my studies, and thus I hit upon the use of enlarged photographs of small plant forms to assist as yet unskilled students in their work.” (Murata, 2015)

Over his career as a teacher and user of photographic equipment Blossfeldt produced around 1,600 prints. Upon closer inspection it can be seen that Blossfeldt retouched some 110 of his enlargements. (Murata, 2015) Additionally, To achieve such a precise clarity and magnification of the plants Blossfeldt built his own camera that was able to magnify the subjects up to thirty times its original size. (ATLAS, n.d.)

Blossfeldt’s popularity and notoriety only occurred later in his life at the age of 63. His recognition came during 1929 when one of Blossfeldt’s images was published by Günther Wasmuth in a notable book, Urformen der Kunst (Archetypes of art). (Dover Publishers Inc., 1985) The book covered topics such as geography, architecture and archaeology. The edition rose to popularity quickly and Blossfeldt was praised and recognised for his modernist vision. (Stoots, 2013)

Blossfeldt much like Renger-Patzsch assisted in separating photography from the Pictorialist style. Blossfeldt did not originally intend for his photographs to be considered art. He actively used his photographs for educational purposes (National Museum of American Art, 2014) Similarly, Renger-Patzsch believed that photography should not be art. He was passionate and concise about what he thought photography’s application should be within society. This included photography being devoid of aesthetic qualities or beauty commonly associated with art. (Simms, 1997)

Both photographers are seen to be masters with hugely influential bodies of work that impacted late 19th century and early 20th century photography. (Murata, 2015) Blossfeldt mastered his practise. He knew what he wanted to achieve within his photos and did so with his practical skills. (National Museum of American Art, 2014) When he began presenting his work to the public critics were astonished with his artful composition, technical prowess and modernist vision. He was praised by critics such as Walter Benjamin, Julius Meier-Graefe and Franz Roh. (Stoots, 2013)

“Karl Blossfeldt is recognised for his extensive and unique photographic plant portraits…These unique photographs reveal the tactile qualities, intricate forms and peculiar aspects of flora which, when magnified transform to resemble architectural structures and the ornamented patterned surfaces of modernist designs. Blossfeldt’s fusion of scientific observation, sculptural form and abstract compositions pioneered an artistic style that forged new approaches to modern art and photography.” (Art Forum, 2015)

Through his writings Regner-Patzsch revealed many concepts as well as skills he used to approach photography such as general camera techniques, what chemicals he used, lighting skills and tripod usage. (Gelderloos, 2014). This is explored in his text ‘Das Photographieren von Blüten’, 1924, In this Renger-Patzsch explores his interest in ‘close-up’ photography with plants in particular. He suggests to the audience that through close-up photography we can force ourselves to view objects from a different perspective such as insects. This is re-affirmed through a statement Renger-Patzsch made a year earlier ‘even thoroughly familiar tings present completely new perspectives when seen in detail.’ (Janzen, 2015)

Other similar factors linking the two photographers work include that they both photographed plants to some extent. During his career Renger-Patzsch wrote several books on plant photography. His books often contained many technical details and advice for amateur photographers. (Janzen, 2015) The style in which both photographers photographed plants mirrored each other. The two photographers closely cropped their images to focus on details, motifs, shapes and textures.

Figure 3 and Figure 4 explore the similarities in compositional style between the two artists. It is for these reasons that Blossfeldt’s and Renger-Patzsch’s work led to a shift in photographic values including the separation of photography from pictorialism and the utilisation of photography for educational purposes. (National Museum of American Art, 2014)

Fig 4: Karl Blossfeldt, Dryopteris filix mas, 1928 (Common male fern) (Michael Hoppen Gallery, n.d.)

Fig 3: Albert Renger-Patzsch, Euphorbia grandicornis, 1921-1925 (Art Gallery of NSW, n.d.)

Although both Karl Blossfeldt and Albert Renger-Patzsch were categorised within the same movement their work naturally had some differences. This includes that Blossfeldt retouched his images while Renger-Patzsch did not. (Poggi, 2003) This alters their connection as straight photographers since Blossfeldt subjectively intervened with his photographs to enhance them for his students. These changes were not drastic but very small very detailed edits used to achieve such things as deepening shadows, separating the subject better from the background and adding small details of plants that may have been lost or not accurately portrayed in the enlargement. (Murata, 2015). This can be seen in Figure 5. A small mark outlining the edge of a leaf provides definition to lost detail. Additionally, Blossfeldt isolated his subjects on white, grey and black backgrounds which in turn recontextualised his subjects. By removing the plants from their original environment Blossfeldt better isolated the details of the plants for observation and analysis. (National Museum of American Art, 2014). Renger-Patzsch, while documenting some isolated objects, mainly photographed repetitive patterns in the environment in which he found them. This included architecture, industrial materials and repetition in nature. This therefore provides the audience with context [image: ]of German society in his images. Such repetition is evident in Figure 6. Fig 5: Karl Blossfeldt, Saxifraga wilkommiana, (Willkom’s Saxifrage. Rosette of Leaves Enlarged 10 Times) 1898-1928 (Murata, 2015)

Fig 6: Albert Renger-Patzsch, Lübeck, View from the Tower of the Petrikirche (Lübeck, Blick vom Turm der Petrikirche), 1928, (The J. Paul Getty Museum, n.d.)

Renger-Patzsch was vocal during his career in the photographic community and his ideas on what photography should be. This was through the form of his writings. (Simms, 1997) Blossfeldt on the other hand only published books of his images towards the end of his career upon his increase in popularity (Dover Publishers Inc., 1985) This was due to the fact that Blossfeldt solely used his images for his students in the form of transparencies and rarely printed his images. (Karl Blossfeldt, 2011) This also meant that Blossfeldt was less active and vocal with his ideas and concepts in the photographic community.

Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt utilised their photographic abilities, methodologies and theories to contribute to the advancement of photography’s application within German society. Through their similarities and differences, we can see that they came to popularity through their unique practices and concepts which in turn assisted in the utilisation of photography as an educational tool as well as defining the Neue Sachlichkeit movement through the photographic medium.


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