C/O Berlin, Germany
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 and had 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 exhibitions in Germany (the others ran concurrently at Sprengel Museum, Hanover 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 series ‘Berlin Wedding’ which he completed in 1979: seemingly arbitrary shots of one of Berlin’s working-class districts. These black and white photographs are imbued with a cool, grim attitude, depicting walls and a wider cityscape still badly marked by war. Reality in these photographs is an exterior world seen barred and blocked, and filled with stark concrete. In contrast to the Bechers, here the ‘objectivity’ of the material world lies in its concrete impermeability. This is also true of the portraits within ‘Berlin Wedding’, for which he photographed the same individuals at both their place of work and in their homes: faces hard and scarred. ‘Real’ in this environment is defined as whatever you’re smashing your forehead against.
Others photographs are less stark. For the participatory study ‘Die Etage’ (The Floor, 1982–83), Thomas Leuner photographed the inhabitants of a squat-like alternative living experiment. Christa Mayer’s dreamlike ‘Absentees. Portraits from a psychiatric clinic’ (1982–86) depicts inhabitants of a psychiatric ward in works that have a near-mystical charge. Compared to their American 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’ (1981–1984) the differences between the group and their contemporaries in Düsseldorf become pronounced. Whereas Thomas Ruff shot his peers in Düsseldorf 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, theirs was a self-aware approach that emphasized the autonomy of the picture. The group shows how 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