Forty years ago in Düsseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher began a venture as uncommercial as any in photography: they made hundreds of austere images of the water towers, oil refineries and silos of the fast-disappearing industrial landscape of the Ruhr valley. Subjects were centred, skies overcast to suppress shadows, viewpoints straightforwardly “objective”.
The affectless minimalism chimed with Warhol and with German painters such as Gerhard Richter striving for post-Nazi neutrality of expression. But where could an aesthetic of monochrome repetitive neutrality go? The diverse uses of the Becher model to record late 20th-century global realities, as developed by the couple’s Düsseldorf students, were unpredictable, dramatic and, in pioneering the huge colour print with a presence rivalling that of paintings, a key influence on contemporary photography and museum display.
Sotheby’s new gallery show is canny marketing – the world’s most expensive photograph, $4.3m in 2011, is Düsseldorf alumnus Andreas Gursky’s “Rhein II” – but also gives an excellent opportunity to survey the entire Düsseldorf school. Beginning with the Bechers’ “Water Towers” and “Coal Tipple”, it includes Candida Höfer’s depopulated library and museum interiors, Thomas Ruff’s blurry Richter-like nudes sourced from internet porn sites, and Thomas Struth’s deserted black and white streets in grid-like typological arrangements, as well as his industrial plant images, such as “Control Panel, Kennedy Space Center”: 21st-century responses to the Bechers’ industrial typologies.
Dominant here, as in the saleroom, is Gursky. “Klausenpass” (1984), a vast mountain landscape punctuated by antlike figures, was his epiphany, revealing possibilities of panoramas where countless individuals form an anonymous mass. From stock exchange to techno rave, Gursky charts global commerce as an alienating phenomenon only graspable by the camera while the eye struggles to accommodate the size and scope.
Until January 17, sothebys.com