BFF 2008

Low Gets High!

Don’t say that this man took the easy way out. The job he took on at an early age was by no means a lucrative one. But it did enable him to earn a little money which was important to make ends meet as a no name in New York. And so the young man started his mindless job in the newspaper clipping department of Time Life at the end of the seventies. All he had to do was archive the editorial articles every day, thus separating the wheat from the chaff. “I had to tear out the articles,” he explained later at an interview, “so that they could be sent to the authors. At the end of the day only the advert pages and their photos were left over and I noticed that no one was interested in these pictures.” He continued to recount that a new cowboy motif appeared every week at the time and how he always really looked forward to the next one.” Then, once the famous Marlboro man had left and been replaced by various others, “Sometime I had all of these cowboy pictures and lots of them had sunsets because that was really popular in advertising at the time.”

The man who certainly appreciated the leftover picture material and knew how to make use of it, is called Richard Prince. Three years ago he moved up in the art market to become the king of the photographic image. Of all the pictures taken it was precisely his “Untitled (Cowboy)”, the section of those Marlboro advertisements he took a photograph of with a lasso-swinging cowboy firmly riding out of the picture, which, in 2005, was the first ever photograph at Christie's (!) to break the one million dollar record.

When looking at the picture it is hard to maintain that the man did not take the easy way out. “It simply doesn’t make sense,” was the acrid comment made by the art dealer Oliver Kamm. “It’ll bite everyone in the ass!” In his opinion the appropriation strategy was too unabashed and crude, simply taking a photograph of an advertising icon and then declaring it to be a work of art. One could say “typical Pop”. And you already know what is going to come next: The apologists of art history will naturally contradict this and seek to ennoble the most audacious product piracy with the label Appropriation Art. And the rest of us will gasp for breath, grin or yawn, all depending. Whoops!

Could it be that we take the easy way out? After all the man who is now a member of the US American art establishment, copied and imitated exactly the picture material which today still holds unbroken appeal for our collective memory on both sides of the Atlantic. Not to mention the East (even Stalin was apparently a Western fan!). Admittedly the radiant appeal is simply oozing with clichés. But no work of art has ever achieved anything comparable. Not even the good old Mona Lisa. No, it was precisely the advertisement photos which were reality to him, as Richard Prince emphasizes with pathos, but consciously free of irony. With this he surely means the true power of pictures.

If you do not want to give credence to the seriousness of his statement, then perhaps a counter question might help: “Who is the photographer of the Marlboro adverts?” At a comprehensive Richard Prince Retrospective shown at the New York Guggenheim Museum last year, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote an overall appreciation of the photo artist. It accompanied the realization that his work encircles this blank space, precisely around the anonymous originator, the nameless artist. The question the renowned daily newspaper dared to ask was logically left unanswered in the review. If you look into it, it takes some tedious research to reveal just a few names. At the beginning of the eighties the photographers were called Larry Dale Gordon, Jim Brady and John Lawlor for instance. Never heard of them? Perhaps some of them are BFF members. We must sincerely hope that this nameless brigade of brilliant picture inventors, successors to the great Ernst Haas who rode with his camera through the austere Elysian Marlboro country, will finally be recognized, and that the recognition is in persona!

But due to the very rigid structure of the Philipp Morris group’s communications policy, that will certainly take some hard digging. The research appears to be worth the trouble at any event, if one considers how deeply the pictures have become engrained in global consumer society. One certainly does not have to be a prophet to proclaim that the Marlboro cowboys will still be collectively riding into the sunset in our mind’s eye when the last cigarette has long since been extinguished. And whatever your opinion of Richard Prince might be, the fact is that this man, who once knew how to carefully separate the texts from the adverts, realized the momentousness of the cigarette campaign at an early stage. Remarkably early.

What do you think? The “Untitled Cowboy’s” homage by the American should actually be painful to the soul of seasoned advertising agencies, art directors and photo designers. Especially since the series exposes who appears to have just lost the battle between High & Lowno names all round! And at a time when at least every other contemporary artist who has a good opinion of himself explicitly refers to advertising strategies in his works. At a time when art markets are mushrooming like speculation exchanges and students in their second term at art school are claiming the creative monopoly over a picture.

Stars of the scene such as Jeff Koons freely admit that advertising taught them to have success. This also applies to the protagonists of photography. First and foremost the spearhead of MAGNUM (Alec Soth, Martin Parr, Bruce Gilden), who serve the phalanx of Parisian haute couture in Fashion Magazine for instance. Philip-Lorca diCorcia shoots for the refined brand Windsor, and the Turner award-winner, Wolfgang Tilmans, has been meandering round art and ads like a virtuoso for years now. There can be no doubt: The pressure on legitimizing photo design has never been greater, it has never been more difficult for this industry to reclaim the prerogative of visual interpretation. And it has never been more important to defend the niche of a photographic advertisement picture. But before the lamenting about the imbalance between high & low begins, let me invite you to simply turn the tables!

High & Low

Allow me to take a look back first of all: High & Low, this great show held at the New York MoMA in 1990 and compiled by Kirk Varnedoe and Adam Gopnik, produced overwhelming evidence for the culture industry as to how vehemently a self-named avant-garde of art already knew how to avail itself of trivial culture suitable for the masses at the beginning of Modernism. Today it is still fervently poaching the territory which it simultaneously seeks to become separate from. In Pop too we are familiar with the strategies used by High & Low to attack each other. For Werner Hofmann two buzzwords sufficed in the seventies already to describe the shots the two sparring partners had been using for decades to try to finish the other one off. They are ennoblement and vulgarization.

An ideal couple aren’t they? (And believe me, you do not need to apply the entire semiotic vocabulary of someone like Roland Barthes for instance to fall for the charm of an advert. But it increases the fun enormously!). The way Horst Wackerbarth illustrated a brand of jeans for Otto Kern in about 1993 was, in fact, vulgar in its conception and refined in its realization. At the time, the attempt to strike a balance between tribute and taboo based on an icon of advanced sacred art, failed simply because the disciples in the famous Last Supper scene by Leonardo da Vinci were depicted topless. For the general public at the time that was a few female breasts too many (who wouldn’t like to know whether good old Leonardo would have been lost for words at the sight of this disrespectful reproduction?).

Wackerbarth certainly knew how to serve the collective pictorial memory with delicacy. After all he studied under Floris M. Neusüss at university in Kassel and changed sides just in time. If you look at the 1985 BFF Yearbook (!) you can see that Wackerbarth was by no means the first person to try out the biblical motif. Klaus-Peter Exner staged the table in black and white at that time, and then already there was a Christ-like woman at the centre of the table. The persons depicted were Luigi Colani’s creative team by the way. Naturally the maestro made a point of outing himself there as a betraying Judas. Later Brigitte Niedermair, Bettina Rheims and legions of other photographers exploited the classical motif for their message in art and advertising. Certainly da Vinci’s Last Supper is only one example of many. But it does show very well the extent to which the game of references was huge fun at a time which we now nostalgically call Postmodernism.

Anyone looking around will still be able to establish today, however, that the pool of images of the western world can be perfectly well tapped by creative people. A unique show of pictures was run on large billboards throughout the whole of Germany in around February 2007 for the market launch of the car model Auris (Toyota). The two BFF members Ralph Richter and Bernd Opitz used this appearance in order to run through the reception parameters of German Romanticism in an intelligently subtle way. And last year the wonderfully argumentative Oliviero Toscani, honorary member of the BFF, proved yet again the extent to which a billboard poster can be fit to create a Europe-wide scandal. His No.Anorexia campaign in which an anorexic actress posed as a nude model would never have evolved the power of a broken taboo in the dialectic fabric of an image if Titian, Ingres and Edvard Munch had not been the inspiration.

Low & High

Now you will be justified in thinking that only an art historian can argue in this way. And he too realises that: Architecture, Fashion, Food, Journalism, People, Still life, Transportation etc. are the names of today’s categories where photo designers can earn money. Yet precisely the BFF, which will be mastering its fortieth anniversary in 2009, could confidently dare to cast a look backwards. All the more so as the BFF has been acting on the maxim of unqualified modernism in images ever since it was founded. Although nothing is older than yesterday’s adverts, it is still true to say that nothing is more attractive than the advertisements of yesteryear. Not least because looking back to a largely untilled piece of German cultural history also holds tremendous reserves of pictures in store – with very practical consequences: As a creative person one does not have to poach only the fields of romantic art for anything retro. The recipe can be much simpler.

F.C. Gundlach, one time ruler of the Heiligengeistfeld area of Hamburg, knew this already when he held a lecture on the subject of Photo Design under the Compulsion of the Market at the BFF annual meeting in 1976. He worded the following thesis with a twinkle in his eye: “The Medicis compelled Michelangelo, Africola compels Wilp.” It is a wonderful bon mot isn’t it? The only problem is: Who is still familiar with the works of the legendary Charles Wilp? When were the advertising campaigns, photo books and record covers of the brilliant aesthete Reinhart Wolf last on show? Or just ask the youngsters at the BFF who Ben Oyne is! Or what influence the fabulous pictorial achievements of Dietmar Henneka, Gerhard Vormwald, Hans Hansen and Peter Knaup have on them?

Dozens more names worth reviving in our collective consciousness could be added to the list. Because the imprint of their pictorial achievements is immense, at least for the generation born in the fifties and sixties. The children of Pop may admittedly be overcome by a certain sentiment but let us recall that long before Michael Schirner’s decree of the century advertising is art made the rounds, the Jack of all trades, Charles Wilp, made the far more momentous discovery that art is nothing but advertising. How right he was to be.

And what was more logical at the time than to turn the dialectic screw of High & Low round a little further? “Is the advertising of our times not at the logical end of art history?” This is the question posed by Hans Georg Puttnies for instance in the newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “Its billboards, advertisements and TV spots constitute the only really lively and popular contemporary pictorial world. Whereas artists get more and more deeply embroiled in their own private mythologies, the art directors, photographers and text writers of the advertising industry work at formulating what we have in common and yet is still largely unaccomplished by human research: our needs, dreams and seemingly irrational motivation… their work is up to date … There is only one thing their work is not. Accepted as the most important art of our times.”

So now you can take notes: This is a statement made in 1977. At the time the very self-confident stars of applied art couldn’t care less about the refusal of art status. On the contrary, they happily allowed themselves to be celebrated. For instance for the market launch of a new Agfa film when the gentlemen set their sights on each other with relish as Bohemians. And in 1980 F.C. Gundlach even allowed himself be taken into the land of the Holy Grail of hot media for a Jägermeister campaign as an icon of German photo design. With a delighted countenance, the man from the North enjoyed, parodying himself, being photographed in a Bavarian hat. The original soundtrack of the export advert: “I’m drinking German Jägermeister because I’m having my own little Oktoberfest.”

What glorious days, one might ponder. If you should be overcome with longing for these good old days, you just need to leaf through one of the opulent BFF Yearbooks. What is to stop you from having a liberated look at good pictures? And if, in between times, you do have to think about Marlboro again and the brazen Richard Prince, let it be noted that in June 2007, the gelatine silver print Rauchender Mann from the cycle Tasting Freedom, which Dieter Blum (BFF) took for Marlboro nine years earlier, won the bid at the Berlin auction house Villa Grisebach at the top price of 96,390 euro. This is apparently the highest price ever paid for a photograph at an auction in Germany, the quintessence being: The spiral keeps on blithely turning...

Addendum: Andreas Gursky, our German king of art photography, was given a surprising sideways look by a US American again. Peter Galassi, the legendary photo curator of the New York MoMA, published an advertisement photograph by the man from Düsseldorf in the catalogue on the retrospective in 2001, which the photographer had published in the eighties for the lighting appliance manufacturer Osram in diverse issues of the magazine Stern. Once again it is a BFF Yearbook which evidences where Gursky earned his first spurs. In the 1981 periodical his father, Willy Gursky, is listed as a full BFF member. Junior obviously knew who he could something learn from.

Text published in: BFF - Das Jahrbuch 2008, Stuttgart 2008, p. 8-16.

Image: BFF - Das Jahrbuch 2008

Text published in:

BFF -Das Jahrbuch 2008

Stuttgart 2008, p. 8-16.

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