The Werkstatt für Photographie (Workshop for Photography) was founded in 1976 by photographer Michael Schmidt at the Volkshochschule Kreuzberg, a neighbourhood centre for adult education in Berlin. As well as running classes and tutorials that were open to the general public, the Werkstatt organized exhibitions. It also engaged in an energetic exchange with US photographers of the time – in particular, figures who would later be grouped as the new topographics, such as Diane Arbus, Lewis Baltz, Larry Clark, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. For some of these photographers, their exhibitions at the Werkstatt were their first in Germany.
‘Kreuzberg – Amerika’ was one of three recent shows in Germany (the others ran concurrently at Sprengel Museum, Hannover and Museum Folkwang, Essen) that examined the long-overlooked work of the Werkstatt. At C/O, Werkstatt members – including Gosbert Adler, Friedhelm Denkeler, Ulrich Görlich, Ursula Kelm, Wilmar Koenig, Christa Mayer and Schmidt – were shown together with their US contemporaries. Eggleston’s iconic colour photographs of empty streets were placed opposite Schmidt’s grim black and white tableau series ‘Waffenruhe’ (Ceasefire, 1985–87); and John Gossage’s series depicting the ambivalent border between man and nature, ‘The Pond’ (1985), floated near Görlich’s ‘Waldstücke’ (Woodscapes, 1977–81): dry, nondescript shots of woods.
Although pivotal to the development of artistic photography in Germany, the Werkstatt has long been overshadowed by the school of Bernd and Hilla Becher, active at the same time in Düsseldorf. Whereas the Bechers’ dictum of conceptual rigour interrogated the mechanisms of photographic objectivity, the Werkstatt asked photographers to question what a picture had to do with the person taking it. The group nonetheless bristled at ‘free’ artistic expression. As Schmidt, who died in 2014, wrote: ‘I completely subordinate myself to the objects being photographed. Only by having the objects represent themselves can one recognize their meaning and function.’
The opening works on view were from Schmidt’s 1978 series ‘Berlin Wedding’: seemingly arbitrary shots of one of the city’s working-class districts. These black and white photographs are imbued with a cool grimness, depicting walls and a wider cityscape still badly marked by war. Reality in these photographs is an exterior world that is barred and blocked, filled with stark concrete. In contrast to the Bechers, here the ‘objectivity’ of the material world lies in its impermeability. This is also true of the portraits from
the ‘Berlin Wedding’ series, for which the artist photographed the same individuals at both their places of work and in their homes, their faces hard and scarred. ‘Real’ in this environment is defined as whatever you’re smashing your forehead against.
Other photographs in the show are less stark. For ‘Die Etage’ (The Floor, 1982–83), Thomas Leuner photographed the occupants of an alternative living experiment. Christa Mayer’s dreamlike ‘Absentees. Portraits from a Psychiatric Clinic’ (1982–86) depicted inhabitants of a psychiatric ward in works that have a near-mystical charge. Compared to their US counterparts, the Werkstatt group undertook participatory observation with fewer theatrics: their still-life photographs are less aesthetically overdetermined, their portraits leave more to the imagination and their landscapes are less conceptually rigid.
In Koenig’s ‘Portraits’ (1981–84) the differences between the group and their contemporaries in Düsseldorf become pronounced. Whereas Thomas Ruff shot his Düsseldorf peers in the style of larger-than-life passport photos – stripping portraiture bare to demonstrate an assumed objectivity – Koenig depicts his acquaintances as proud or pugnacious: partly cut off by the frame’s edge, turning away, bucking the objectifying gaze of the camera. Perhaps this is what we, today, can take from the Werkstatt für Photographie: instead of redirecting photography toward conceptual structures, their self-aware approach emphasized the autonomy of the picture. The group shows that a photograph owes as much to the person taking it as it does to the subject it depicts.
Translated by Philipp Rühr and Stanton Taylor
First published in Issue 186