Photographs Become Pictures
Städel Museum Celebrates the Becher School

They revolutionized the medium of photography. Students of Bernd and Hilla Becher were the first people to experiment with oversized picture formats whose crystalline sharpness made everything visible down to the last detail. In addition, some of them also worked with found pictorial material and cutting-edge digital technology. With the Becher School, German photography began its triumphal march into international museums and onto the art market. This development is now traced in a comprehensive survey exhibition at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Around 200 photographs, including many loans from the Deutsche Bank Collection, document the road from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s sober black-and-white photographs to Andreas Gursky’s digitally edited large-format works and Thomas Ruff’s adaptations of NASA pictorial material. Apart from these internationally renowned positions, exciting rediscoveries such as Volker Döhne, Tata Ronkholz, and Petra Wunderlich are represented.

The point of departure of Photographs Become Pictures are the Becher’s photographs that are arranged into grids—cool and distant typologies of industrial architecture and half-timbered buildings that bridge the gap between documentation and Minimal Art. This conceptual and serial approach influenced the early works of their students at the Düsseldorf Academy, for example Tata Ronkholz’ photographs of refreshment kiosks and display windows. Like the Bechers, their students also turned to often neglected aspects of daily life in West Germany. While Candida Höfer devoted herself to Cologne’s Turkish community, Thomas Struth strolled through Düsseldorf “to photograph ugly areas that normally are not addressed.” The result are photos with which people today can take a trip back in time to 1970s and 1980s West Germany. “There is a gray veil over the city that my mother still hasn’t washed away,” is how the band Fehlfarben described the mood at the time.

But the Bechers’ students quickly expanded the focus of their work. They not only photographed around the globe, but also continually examined the formal possibilities of the medium and started working with color and digital technology. Jörg Sasse, for example, manipulated amateur photos on the computer, producing suggestive pictures that look real and unreal simultaneously. Andreas Gursky also turned to digital image editing, without which his detailed large formats such as Atlanta (1996) from the Deutsche Bank Collection would not have been possible. Gursky transformed the view of a 22-story hotel hall into a virtually abstract composition with horizontal and vertical elements. The photograph becomes a painting, and the format and frame enhance its objective presence. Thus, the works of the Bechers and their students not only illustrate the emancipation of photography as an artistic medium. They also reflect the moment when the medial borders between photography, painting, and sculpture dissolved.

Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class
4/27/2017 – 8/13/2018
Städel Museum, Frankfurt