GERMAN PHOTOGRAPHY – From reality to fiction

[10 May 2006]


Bernd and Hilla Becher are the leading lights of “objective” photography in Germany. Their approach refutes the anecdotal and focuses on inventorying anonymous “industrial sculptures” that appear throughout our environment. The radicalism of their documentary work had a strong impact on their students including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas STRUTH and Candida HÖFER. This later generation of photographers assimilated much of the Becher’s approach, although sometimes freeing itself from the “objective” view of reality by altering their images. From an auction and museum preference point of view, the later generation seems to have become more popular than the objective purism of the Becher period.

There can be no doubt, however, that for German photographers, being a student of the Bechers was a very positive element on their curriculum vitaes! However, while many artists who attended the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts initially pursued the path of “objective” accounts of reality, their artistic maturity appears to have been reached after breaking out of the straightjacket of this approach. The “founding fathers” of German objective photography are thus Bernd & Hilla BECHER, most of whose works sell for less than EUR 10,000. Some vintage prints from the 1960s are still affordable as the date the photo was taken does not, for the time being, have a significant impact on the price. For example, in April 2006, an untitled photo taken in 1967 and printed in only five copies sold for GBP 4,500 (EUR 6,436) at Christie’s South Kensington, London.
As the style of the Becher’s work is encyclopaedic, collectors tend to favour their series. And it is these series that fetch the highest prices. They record certain categories of “industrial sculptures” such as water towers and furnaces. The highest price ever paid for one of these series was USD 150,000 (EUR 115,665, at Phillips, de Pury & Company New York) in 2004 for a series of nine photos entitled Cooling Towers.

Among the Bechers’ former students, the one who commands the highest prices is Andreas GURSKY, whose works sell primarily (98%) within the US and UK markets. Unlike his masters’ works, some 70% of his photos change hands for more than EUR 10,000! Gursky likes the “monumental” format (some photos are more than five metres long) where people are lost in gigantic everyday scenes: supermarkets, stock markets, museums, etc. His photographs offer an objective look at our contemporary world and create spectacular mental images. He is even able to convey this sense of the spectacular using small formats. For example, a 50 x 62 cm photo of a room of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which in 2002 only sold for its low estimate at USD 5,000 (Phillips, de Pury & Company New York), went under the hammer for more than its high estimate in October 2005 at USD 13,000 (EUR 10,842, Christie’s New York). The record for a Gursky was set in London in February 2002 with Untitled V, 1997, a 4-metre-long view of a shoe display. Prices for the artist’s work have climbed 70% over the last six years.

Thomas RUFF: +450% between 1997 and February 2006! Over the years, Ruff has moved away from objective photography and created numerous series of photographs, although he is not the always the original photographer. This was the case for his most expensive work to date: a photograph that he acquired from the European Southern Observatory. The piece, entitled Stern 02h56 65°, sold for twice its low estimate for GBP 70,000 (EUR 111,929, Christie’s London). Collectors keenly follow the various series produced by the artist, who in the space of 20 years has evolved from an objective view of “real reality” towards multicoloured abstractions without any recognizable referent (e.g. Substrat). Thus, works from very different types of series have also sold for more than USD 100,000: Substrat 4III in November 2004 (Philips, de Pury & Company New York) and Nudes gr21 in May 2005 (Christie’s New York).