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Visualising Reality

Contemporary German photography has never been so distinct - and so popular.


Andreas Gursky, "99 Cent"

It took three attempts, before the brothers Bisson finally reached the peak.

Having arrived at the top of Mont Blanc, in the French alps, Louis and Auguste Bisson began setting up their heavy camera equipment. The Bissons, 19th century hobby-moutaineers and owners of a small photography studio on the Paris Boulevard de Capucines, hoped that the results of their expedition would finally lead to a breakthrough in photography.

Within months, their images of snowy slopes and formidable glaciers captured the hearts of people all over the world and triggered an interest in documentary photography which has lasted until today. Indeed, documentary photography has never been so popular, and is showing in an increasing number of exhibitions in art galleries and museums worldwide.

More than a hundred years after the Bisson brothers’ awe-inspiring glacier slopes, German photographer Axel Hütte clambered up a similar slope and set about capturing the sheer beauty of a ragged, snowy peak on film.

Hütte, along with Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth are among those artists leading the way in contemporary photography today. All three graduated from the Düsseldorf Art Academy, under the beady eye of teachers and co-photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher.

In their early days as photographers, the Bechers turned to the Germany’s decaying coal mines, documenting the remains of Germany’s one time booming coal industry. With their documentation the Bechers followed in the footsteps of the Bisson brothers, and were soon followed by the likes of Gursky, Struth and Hütte.

Contemporary photography has been gaining surprisingly fast in popularity in the last decade and reached a peak this year when a photograph by Andreas Gursky, known for his huge works of art depicting pop concert audiences or stockbrokers, sold for half a million pounds (701,055 euro) at Christies – the highest price ever for a photo.

Visible reality

Since it was invented, photography has been defined as an authentic reproduction of visible realities. However, manipulations and instrumentality of media like newspapers, television and internet have changed photography from a credible reproduction of reality to a mixture of reality and fiction.

Capturing reality on print is one thing. But it is the photographer and his or her own specific viewpoint that plays a major role in the perception and interpretation of reality.

The slick illustrations of corporate advertising, the overabundant photography in magazines and newspapers, the ceaselessly devouring eye of television – all these have delivered - and thereby processed - images.

Andreas Gursky’s originality, for example, lies in the vividness, wit and certain distance with which he has distilled compelling images from the mass of the commercial image world.

It is this distinction which Gursky shares with his contempories Hütte, Struth and Becher.

So popular

Less than a decade ago, discussion forums debated on whether photography belonged in museums.

Today, with exhibitions on contemporary photography showing in cities worldwide, the debate has changed as to why contemporary photography appears to be topping the exhibition programmes of leading museums all over the world.

Photography by the "Becher school" is now on show at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and the Kunsthalle Emden.