DER ROTE BULLI (THE RED VW BUS): “On the Reception of Stephen Shore’s Work in Germany 1972-1995″ (2010)

El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas, July 5, 1975

On the Reception of Stephen Shore’s Work in Germany 1972-1995

“To be sure, that is also the expression of a particular vital consciousness.”

(Essay excerpt from Der Rote Bulli ,Stephen Shore and the New Düsseldorf Photography 2010, brought to ASX by NRW-Forum Düsseldorf)

By Christoph Schaden, NRW-Forum Düsseldorf, 2010

The typical historical account of the effect a body of photography exercises on its viewers unfolds from the perspective of an artistic zenith. For the work of North American photographer Stephen Shore, however, we can launch our retrospective with a precisely identifiable incident that marks the starting shot more in the spirit of a revival. “Suddenly, for one weekend, Münster was the epicenter of the latest developments in photographic history. While an exhibition of the work of American photographer Stephen Shore opened at the Westfälischer Kunstverein, the overwhelming show of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Typologien (Typologies) was winding down in the rooms of the Landesmuseum opposite.”

In a review that appeared in the Tageszeitung newspaper on February 3, 1995, critic Ulf Erdmann Ziegler indicated that the smooth transition between the two solo exhibitions was no coincidence but rather to some degree a symbol-laden passing of the torch. For Shore – “certainly ‘a name’ in the seventies,” according to the reviewer, had, unlike Bernd and Hilla Becher, increasingly fallen into oblivion on the international art and photography scene since the mid-1980s. This is why the Münster traveling exhibition, put together by Heinz Liesbrock, then director of the Westfälischer Kunstverein, did in fact signify a rediscovery and the beginning of an impressive comeback as art photographer that still colors Shore’s reputation in this country today.

The reviewer didn’t have to search long for reasons for this revival of interest. The curator of the show evidently saw “in Shore a model for that generation of German artists/photographers who forged careers as students of Bernd and Hilla Becher,” noted Erdmann Ziegler. “As if to palpably prove this connection, the Bechers came from Düsseldorf for the opening. As one of the five catalogue texts, Liesbrock included an interview with the great documentarists in which they confirm that they have also shown photos by Shore at the Academy.” [1]

Stephen Shore as the American inspiration for the Becher class! Ever since then, the renaissance of the New Color photographer has been inextricably bound up with this spectacular thesis. The lasting influence Shore’s color photographs had on the so-called “Becher class” at the Düsseldorf Art Academy is a rumor that has been spread equally by critics, art historians and the artists involved, and after the turn of the millennium it itself seems to have become a topos in the recent history of photography. Even Shore himself, who didn’t pay a personal visit to the Düsseldorf Art Academy until the mid-1990s, shared in this general belief. “It seems to me that the younger generation of artists, particularly in Germany, pursues a standpoint that is related to mine,” he said in a 2001 interview. “The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, with whom I have long been friends, paved the way for this kind of ‘Straight Photography.’” [2]

There is probably no other photographic oeuvre from the orbit of New Color Photography in the USA that has since the turn of millennium been treated in such detail in all its various stages of development as that of the New York photographer, who was born in 1947 in New York and quickly rose to fame as the wunderkind of photography. [3] The early influence of Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory, which Shore began to document at the age of 17, formed fertile ground for a singular oeuvre that took shape between the conflicting demands of an uninhibited art avant-garde and a contemporary form of photography that had just begun to emancipate itself. In Shore’s work, documentary, conceptual, vernacular and color-specific aspects are united, all of which helped lay the groundwork for his extraordinarily early rise to fame. Shortly before his 24th birthday, he had his first solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. His work series Uncommon Places, parts of which were displayed in 1976 in a solo exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and which was then published in book form in 1982 by Aperture, distinguishes Shore, alongside William Eggleston, Joel Sternfeld and Joel Meyerowitz, as one of the leading pioneers of New Color Photography. [4] This is attributable not least to the fact that the autonomous use of color, once dismissed as “vulgar” by Walker Evans, signalized a revolution within the nascent developments in art photography, which with a certain delay then spread to Europe and in particular to Germany. In the case of Stephen Shore, the narrowly restricted German photography scene, and especially the study class of Bernd Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, provide ideal conditions for us to trace in detail the momentous impact of his work.

Fachwerkhäuser des Siegerlands, 1971-1972, 8-teilige Abwicklung. Courtesy LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn, Rheinisches Landesmuseum für Archäologie, Kunst und Kulturgeschichte by Bernd und Hilla Becher

Photokina and Lichttropfen

The first European readers probably took notice of the young New York photographer as early as 1967, when Andy Warhol’s book Index was published, on which Stephen Shore worked with Paul Morrissey, Nico, Nat Finkelstein and Billy Name. [5] The next year, a few of his black-and-white photos from the Factory phase appeared as illustrations in the catalogue for the Warhol exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. [6] But a serial photo work by Shore did not find its way to European shores until autumn 1972 in the so-called Bilderschauen (Picture Shows) at the photokina in Cologne. Leo Fritz Gruber, who had been in charge of the cultural segment of the world’s biggest professional photography fair since 1951, had invited the Switzerland-based American Allan Porter to organize a group show of contemporary international photography. For Porter, whose editorial post at the magazine Camera in the 1970s and 80s made him a pivotal figure in the transatlantic mediation of young photographers, the trade fair offered an ideal forum to expand his own field of activity. Under the title “Sequences” he showed an extremely eclectic selection of black-and-white photographs that catered to the reawakened interest in serial compositions. Included in the show was art photography by Duane Michals, Ray K. Metzger, Floris M. Neusüss and Gerd Sander. Stephen Shore was represented by an eight-part b/w sequence of photos taken at the Institute of General Semantics in Connecticut in 1970. [7] Camera published four images from this series in its October 1972 issue. [8]

His real discovery by the German photography scene, however, was left to Rudolf Kicken. In 1973 the young Aachen gallery owner, who at the time was taking part in a photography workshop in Rochester with Nathan Lyons, contacted the Light Gallery in New York. [9] Founded in the early 1970s, this photography gallery, whose director, Harold Jones, focused exclusively on 20th-century photography and preferably on contemporary trends, had rapidly become the prime meeting point for a young US photography avant-garde. [10] Paul Strand, Bea Nettles, Tod Papageorge, Joe Deal and Harry Callahan were among the photographers who exhibited there. In an anteroom, the gallery showed Stephen Shore’s series American Surfaces in 1972 in the form of a wall installation designed to be hung in three rows. [11] For Rudolf Kicken, who had just founded the Galerie Lichttropfen in Aachen with Wilhelm Schürmann, offering Shore exclusive representation at his avant-garde gallery meant he would have the appealing opportunity to present the European debut of an American contemporary artist. After the two gallerists had already presented Alex Kayser and a group exhibition of the work of Andre Kertész, Paul Strand, Wynn Bullock and Harry Callahan in their rooms on Kockerellstrasse in 1974, they also showed a selection of Stephen Shore’s latest color photographs in late 1975, which he had taken using a large-format camera. [12] Only two years later, the second gallery show followed, for obvious reasons. “Color was something marvelous at that time; we were excited about Walker Evans anyway, and the connection with Robert Frank was also there,” Rudolf Kicken remembers. “In the final analysis, Shore was for us a continuation of Frank’s Back Routes of America from the 1940s.” [13]

The One Road

Unlike in the USA, dealing in photography was to a large extent an exotic undertaking in West Germany at that time. Ann and Jürgen Wilde had opened a photo gallery in Cologne in 1972, and the same year Heinrich Riebesehl had established a non-commercial exhibition space in Hanover called Spectrum. However, as Thomas Weski once explained, starting in the mid-1970s this purely photographic infrastructure, which also included for example the Museum Folkwang in Essen, was still largely cut off from contemporary international currents on the art market. [14] Trends in, for example, Pop, Conceptual and Land Art, in which photography was being used as artistic tool, were still beyond reach. Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose photographic documentary work had by contrast already been acknowledged in the international art context at an early date, came into contact with Galerie Lichttropfen through Klaus Honnef. An occasion was provided by an exhibition of the work of German industrial photographer Werner Mantz, in whom the artist couple was interested.

That Shore’s sublime color photographs would also spark their interest once they saw them hanging in the gallery comes as no surprise. Hilla Becher, who frequently spent time in New York due to her son, had in fact already made Shore’s acquaintance in 1973. [15] His dialogue with her would open up a new artistic perspective for Shore, who had just begun experimenting with a 4 × 5 inch camera. “In the early 1970s, Hilla and I had a conversation in New York City that clarified for me what my intentions were for my work. She suggested that I just photograph main streets across America. My reaction was that it wasn’t right for me. Thinking about her suggestion made me realize that what I was after was not a study of main streets (or gas stations, suburban houses, shopping centers, etc.), but the quintessential main street.” [16] Despite their divergent attitudes, a friendship quickly developed between the two, marked by mutual artistic esteem and shared exhibitions. In January 1975 for example, Stephen Shore was the only color photographer to take part with Bernd and Hilla Becher (as the only European photographers) in the important exhibition New Topographics. Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, which introduced a radically new concept of landscape into photography. [17] Among the artists represented in the show, which took place at George Eastman House in Rochester and was curated by William Jenkins, were Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Nicolas Nixon, John Schott and Henry Wessel. In subsequent years several additional group shows would once more bring together works by Shore and the Bechers. [18]

Church Street and Second Street, Easton, Pennsylvania, June 20, 1974 © Stephen Shore, Courtesy 303 Gallery New York

Bernd Becher as Mediator

The dialogue between the New Color photographers and the two German documentarists was not limited to exhibition participation, however. Bernd and Hilla Becher acquired several color prints by Shore from the Galerie Lichttropfen, including a groundbreaking work called Beverly Boulevard and La Brea Avenue, Los Angeles. [19] After Bernd Becher became a professor at the Art Academy in Düsseldorf in 1976, he expanded his activities as mediator, recommending to the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, which had already served as forum for the Becher exhibition Anonyme Skulpturen. Formvergleiche industrieller Bauten (Anonymous Sculptures. Comparisons of Form of Industrial Buildings) in the first quarter of 1969, that they hold a solo show of Shore’s work. This exhibition was then realized in spring 1977 under the simple title Stephen Shore. Fotografien (Stephen Shore. Photographs). This was the American photographer’s first comprehensive show in Europe and comprised some 60 pictures from the holdings of the Aachen gallery, which had now changed its name to those of its owners, Kicken & Schürmann. [20] The Düsseldorf presentation was supplemented by a few pieces recently acquired by Bernd and Hilla Becher, including the 1974 photograph MacDonald Avenue, Terrace Bay, Ontario. This rather unspectacular color photograph of a wooden house with a pitched roof was closely related in terms of its motif to the documentary works in the Bechers’ series Fachwerkhäuser des Siegener Industriegebietes (Half-Timbered Houses in the Industrial Area of Siegen). [21]

Although the Düsseldorf Kunsthalle had already shown 80 vintage prints by Walker Evans from the Museum of Modern Art in New York in a solo exhibition the year before, seemingly paving the way for the reception of the US American pictorial tradition in photography, the press response to the Shore show was quite reserved. In the Düsseldorfer Nachrichten newspaper, Helga Meister commented: “The color photographs … capture cityscapes from a strictly distanced viewpoint, softened by the sunlight-infused colors.” [22] Under the headline “Amerika in aller Stille” (“America in All Quietness”), the Neue Ruhr Zeitung newspaper by contrast attested to a special atmospheric quality in the pictures. There was “hardly a trace of hecticness” to be found in them. [23] Yvonne Friedrichs from the Rheinische Post found that the pictures manifested great formal expertise; the photographer had “an eye for rhythm, for the interplay of structures, colors and light, which gives his images that certain something that turns photographs into artworks.” [24] Since the photo exhibition, presented in the graphic art gallery at the Kunsthalle, opened at the same time as three other shows, it attracted little attention in the midst of this “somewhat haphazardly put together potpourri.” [25]

Nevertheless, the show did leave its mark. Volker Döhne for example, an early student in the Becher class, visited the Kunsthalle on the advice of Bernd Becher and bought the slim catalogue. The catalogue was identical with an excerpt from the January 1977 issue of Camera magazine, which featured eight color photos and a questionnaire for Stephen Shore. Asked “which type of photography” he identified himself with, the 29-year-old American referred to Beaumont Newhall’s standard work History of Photography. The renowned historian of photography had added him as youngest artist to the canon in his popular reference guide. [26] Shore then used this reference to immediately make a programmatic connection with the consolidating approach evidenced by his photographic working method:

“In his chapter ‘Recent Trends’ Beaumont Newhall writes that there are four independent traditions in photography: straight photography (Weston), formalist (Moholy-Nagy), documentary (Cartier-Bresson), and equivalents (Stieglitz, Minor White). But these needn’t be viewed necessarily as independent traditions – the best photographs unite all of them. The tradition which these four interrelated aspects are part of is the tradition in which I am working.” [27]

In the self-assurance evidenced by this early association we can perhaps today still discern the core of Shore’s approach to picture-making. [28] The interpenetration of diverse intellectual and visual traditions programmatically granted the coexistence of very disparate possibilities of reception, which in sum often proved able to open up access to the photographic image, or at times to more general pictorial issues and methods. In this connection the liberating focus of the Uncommon Places series displayed at the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf in 1977 surely laid the intellectual groundwork for the students in the Becher class to then follow the cue of US color photography in their work.

River Valley Motor Lodge, 1994 by Boris Becker © VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

documenta 1977

It’s hardly surprising to discover that Stephen Shore’s color photographs were first recognized in the art context in Germany at nearly the same time. Bernd and Hilla Becher were once again instrumental here. Directly after the end of the Düsseldorf exhibition the artist couple lent some of their Shore works to documenta 6, among them the La Brea picture and the photo El Paso Street, El Paso, Texas. [29] As part of the mammoth show of contemporary art directed by Manfred Schneckenburger, which opened in Kassel on June 24, 1977, and would become known to posterity by the catchword Media Documenta, Klaus Honnef and Evelyn Weiss had put together an extensive section on photography. The show aimed to present a retrospective of the medium and at the same time to highlight the development strategies underlying its technical, communicative and content-related aspects. Klaus Honnef, who had been exhibition director at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn since 1974 and who had established a photo-documentary exhibition tradition there at the prompting of Bernd Becher, played a pivotal role in the German photography scene in the latter half of the 1970s. [30] He classified Shore’s 10-part series in terms of its content under the heading Direkte Fotografie – Stadt und Architektur (Direct Photography – City and Architecture). At the same time, however, the curator and art critic turned his attention to the methodical procedure chosen by the New York photographer in order to add a decisive point to Newhall’s four categories of contemporary photography:

The four components, which are derived primarily from black-and-white photography, are joined in Stephen Shore’s case by the element of color, which he deploys very deliberately to emphasize the documentary, or the formalist, or the symbolic value of the image. His pictures are static and self-contained. Their documentary value – probably their most important aspect – lies in the recording of the contemporary American cityscape and rural settlements. These are not unusual views, but rather everyday sights. These link him with Walker Evans, who in a different era made this vernacular and seemingly insignificant environment arrestingly visible. [31]

An Important Current Trend

In this consolidating formula, which proved able to convey the essence of photography in all its complexity as well as its transparency, we can perhaps recognize with hindsight the real reason why, in Germany in particular, Stephen Shore’s color photographs were able to succeed in diverse milieus. As a case in point, Allan Porter mounted another group exhibition for the “picture shows” at the photokina in Cologne just one year after documenta 6. This show was the first to allude to the catchword “New Color Photography” in its title. [32] It was called New Colour Visionen. Die zweite Generation der Farbphotographen (New Colour Visions. The Second Generation of Colour Photographers) and it gathered together works by 16 American artists including, apart from Shore, William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, Neal Slavin and Joel Sternfeld. In the catalogue text the curator legitimated the autonomous use of color with the same arguments that only a few years before had triggered vehement controversies in the USA: “In fact the photographers almost seek out the harsh colours of such phenomena and emphasize their triviality by cramming these colours into a single picture. Yet this is an important current trend.“ [33] Negative reactions to Porter’s apology were not forthcoming in Germany, however, even though the use of loud, screaming colors, now seemingly omnipresent in the photo-design field, in fashion and advertising photography and even at the photokina, was still taboo on the independent contemporary photography scene. [34] It was not least because New Color stood in direct opposition to the formalistic black-and-white photography of the Steinert school – which still dominated academic teaching in Germany at the time under the dictates of subjective photography – that this new branch also opened up some fresh alternatives. And the Germans could only attain an autonomous position once they faced up to the latest developments in American photography. [35]

Additional sources recounting Shore’s reception in Germany attest to this grappling with the American model and the increased interest at what was happening overseas. In its September 1977 issue, which was dedicated to New York as theme, the Swiss monthly Du published a few big-city scenes by Shore under emphatically documentary premises. [36] The following year, the photographer couple Gabriele and Helmut Nothhelfer published in connection with a teaching post in Berlin a small study volume on the approach American photographers were currently taking to depicting reality, using the Farm Security Administration as example (Wirklichkeitsvermittlung am Beispiel der Farm Security Administration). They illustrated in words and images how motifs from documentary photographs by Walker Evans and Ben Shahn reappeared in the work of Stephen Shore, Joel Meyerowitz and Steve Szabo. [37] An anthology published that same year by Hugo Schöttle once again linked a few of Shore’s works with contemporary positions. [38] Also important was the show on Amerikanische Landschaftsphotographie (American Landscape Photography) art historian Klaus-Jürgen Sembach put together for the Neue Sammlung in Munich in 1978. Here for the first time, a line of tradition in American photography was presented in Germany that traced the trajectory from early landscape photos in the 19th century (by artists such as Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson) and classic positions in black-and-white photography (Ansel Adams, Edward Weston) to the contemporary New Color works. William Christenberry, William Eggleston, Joe Maloney and Stephen Shore were featured among the latter. In his catalogue text Sembach insistently attributed to the younger artists a certain calculated impression of fleetingness. “This trait of transitoriness is to all appearances typical of a certain part of American landscape photography and is strengthened when the suggestion of movement is added to it, in, for instance, Stephen Shore, where roads often go straight across the picture or rush towards a distant horizon…

Essay continued in the Exhibition Catalogue…


Der Rote Bulli – Stephen Shore and the New Düsseldorf Photography (2010)
Editors: Werner Lippert and Christoph Schaden
344 Pages
Photography by Stephen Shore, Bernd und Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, Volker Döhne, Axel Hütte, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Tata Ronkholz, Wendelin Bottländer, Andreas Gursky and more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BOOKS: NRW-Forum Düsseldorf

* Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places (2005)
* Joachim Brohm: Ohio (2010)
* Stephen Shore: American Surfaces (2008)
* Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work (2006)
* Boris Becker: Photographs 1984-2009 (2010)
* Andreas Gursky (2008)

Around the WEB: NRW-Forum Düsseldorf

* Facebook: NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
* Twitter: NRW-Forum Düsseldorf
* Schaden.com: Der rote Bulli (2010)
* NRW-Forum Düsseldorf: Robert Mapplethorpe (2010)
* NRW-Forum Düsseldorf: Stephen Shore und die Neue Düsseldorfer Fotografie. 11. September 2010 bis 16. Januar 2011 (2010)

 

ASX CHANNEL: STEPHEN SHORE

 

(© Christoph Schaden, 2010. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)

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