Just now in London two important exhibitions are a fascinating counterpoint to each other. At the Alan Cristea Gallery a group of colour works by Jan Dibbets stretches back to the 1970s. Around the corner, at Brancolini Grimaldi, the German photographer Joachim Brohm is showing a number of series which date back to the early 1980s. Similar time spans, two strongly contrasted approaches to photography.
Dibbets (born 1941, in Holland) is always described as a conceptual artist, and he may be just that, but it is interesting to peek behind the label. He studied in London, at St Martins, where his contemporaries included Gilbert & George and Richard Long, and – just as they have – he has used the great legibility of photography without accepting the limits of photography’s obsessive tango with the real world. Dibbets, like so many artists examining perception itself rather than what is perceived, returns always to sequences or artworks made of multiple views. Gilbert & George’s grids and Long’s progressions are responses to the same central drive.
Dibbets’ enquiries have not been merely dry. A group of his “colour studies” are still pictures of the bonnets of cars. By keeping just enough legibility – the numerals 304 and an air grille from a yellow Peugeot, a NL sticker from a blue car, a wing mirror or a door-hinge – Dibbets kept them in the territory where photography is so rich. They are metaphors, swinging away from fact, but they don’t abandon fact.
Joachim Brohm (b. 1955) is a German photographer whose first show in London (to my surprise) this is. It is conventional to think of Brohm as a “new colourist”, and it’s as good a short-hand as calling Dibbets a conceptual artist. Brohm was certainly influenced by the work of such Americans as Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. But it’s perhaps a mistake to think that Brohm was mainly interested in the fact that those Americans worked in colour. More importantly, they also trusted photography to make its own aesthetics. Brohm, in other words, took on the burden of breaking away from such “respectable” cousins of photography as painting or even film. Of course colour was a part of that. But I don’t think colour was the essence.
Brohm’s pictures don’t look at all like Dibbets’. Dibbets makes sculptures out of photographs, Brohm makes views. Mainly of the crowded non-spaces of our new world, where town meets country and nothing has a centre or a history. Brohm is formally brilliant, although his manner is quiet. A calm series on the Ruhr, subtitled Topographies of Anonymity, is beautifully reprinted in small prints whose colour seems to shift uncertainly. It poses as good a set of questions on the rebuilding of Germany after the war as you will find: questions about overcrowding and Americanisation, about car-life and mall-life, and about what happened to the great German Romantic passion for nature. It’s done with great knowingness: a round gas-holder, so familiar from the typologies of the Bechers, is everything the Becher studies were not: alone, golden, and seen from an angle on a bright sunny day. It’s an invitation to think that maybe the subjects of photography were more than just pieces in schemes.
Dibbets proved that the fundamentals of photographic perception were up for rethinking in his studies of the horizon, which are breathtaking. In “Sea, 0˚ - 135˚”, the horizon turns through 15 degrees between each in a series of 10 prints. The waves are slightly different at each stop; we can see that time has passed. But as it passes, so does our state of mind, from the peaceful soothed ease of a calm sea breaking on shore to something very close to panic as the horizon rears up impossibly. It’s a striking piece, deeply conscious of its own magic. Joachim Brohm could do something very similar by utterly different means. When he shows two stout men lowering a canoe into a suburban stream, you are immediately transported to fur-trappers and through them to Lewis & Clarke and through them to Mason & Dixon and through them to Thomas Pynchon, and then … back to suburbia.
These two quite separate shows add up to a reminder that photography developed differently in Europe to the history that was so conveniently packaged in the US. There is a vogue for talking about “artists using photography” to describe those too grand to be known as photographers. Here are two. But I think “photographers” will do. Great ones, tackling important questions with deep reserves of sophisticated culture.
‘Jan Dibbets: Land Sea Colour’, at Alan Cristea, until April 20, www.alancristea.com
‘Joachim Brohm: Places & Edges’, Brancolini Grimaldi, until May 4, www.brancolinigrimaldi.com