Claudia Fährenkemper. Tagebau Großgerät

A Personal Truth

On the early photographic works of Claudia Fährenkemper

In his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Arts—which in 1899 was already in a third edition and, in retrospect, can be seen as one of the most influential essays on photo theory—the British doctor and hobby photographer Peter Henry Emerson compared the essential nature of photography to that of a female god. As the author emphasized, “this cool young goddess, born of art and science” was a very singular creature, capable of replacing reality with its technical image without a crucial difference arising between the two. At least that was the contemporary opinion.[i]

At the time, Emerson had already had a painful experience with this temperamental two-faced lady himself, whom he sometimes called “little goddess”, sometimes “pretty goddess” and again “light-bearing goddess”.[ii] What increasingly exasperated the author was the fact that the suspension of reality by means of a technically generated image was owed to a personal creative act, the results of which gave the impression of being “sketched by Nature herself”. In the first 1889 edition of his book, Emerson had already proposed incorporating photography into the fine arts and called for an aesthetic of out-of-focus photography, which was indeed to become decisive for main stream pictorialism. Nonetheless, a decade later there was no such talk; instead the following maxims were valid: “Science has disarmed a branch of the fine arts; what was otherwise left to the artist’s arbitrary choice is now driven by a fixed and unchanging chemical-optical process.”[iii] As to this dual goddess called photography, what also counted was the understanding that the human perspective and ways of viewing this genre could change within a very short time. In other words, its nature seemed absolute but was also marked by metamorphosis, not least because the human view of photography was constantly subject to change, to breaks in perception and reinterpretations.

Perhaps Emerson’s theory, which keeps alive (impressively compact) all the exciting and basic dispositions of the 19th century, is—almost like no other historical model—suitably applicable to a second look at Claudia Fährenkemper’s series Fördergeräte im Braunkohlentagebau (excavators in open-pit mining), a project she completed over a five-year period and published in 1993 as a catalogue. For it is not only our view of the enormous shovel- and bucket-wheel excavators that has changed over the past two decades. Keeping in mind the art-photographer’s subsequent projects, we too tend to categorize and interpret this first documentation in a new way, namely as work immanent. And not least of all, a new examination also impacts the nature of photography itself, for the multifaceted goddess in this digital age has changed her look once again. 

Evocative ‘Irrelevancies’

At the very beginning of her article that appeared in 1993 in the first Claudia Fährenkemper catalogue, the author Claudia Gabriele Betancourt Nunez pointed out that the artist’s work series on the excavators in open-pit mining in no way exhausted the naturalistic requirement in Peter Henry Emerson’s sense. Rather, as the photo historian emphasized, it was founded on a conceptual and aesthetic implementation of a specific documentary mandate that would in turn encompass “external conditions and manifested forms of reality” in a precise way.[iv] Even after almost twenty years, this mandate is so evident in its biographic and art-photographic point of reference that it hardly needs explaining. As the only student in Bernd Becher’s photography class at Düsseldorf’s famous art academy, Fährenkemper had dedicated herself to an industrial subject in analogy to the artist couple, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and their engagement with the forms of western industrial complexes, and henceforth recorded documentarily the giant excavators used in strip mining.[v] What today, at a superficial glance, seems like an appendix to the solitary intent of Becherian documentation, nevertheless even in 1993 needed a much more differentiated analysis. On the one hand, Becher’s strict dictate meant students had an obligation to fulfill but, on the other hand, also meant they had a guideline to emancipate themselves from forcibly if they ever wanted to arrive at their own position in fine-art photography. For Claudia Fährenkemper, who had already begun her study of photography under Arno Jansen the Cologne University of applied Sciences, the dictate could have hardly been any clearer or stricter. It consisted of radical subjection of the photograph to the depicted object – a tremendously disciplinary impulse that, as is known, stands behind the life work that Bernd Becher, together with his wife Hilla, was able to accomplish over almost four decades and that inimitably stamped their modus operandi: “This ‘ideal’ view of the object – that does not allow any digressions into evocative ‘irrelevancies’, that registers matter-of-factly and is alone directed at the object – is the prerequisite for a comparison to, and therefore also for the readability of, the objects.”What today, at a superficial glance, seems like an appendix to the solitary intent of Becherian documentation, nevertheless even in 1993 needed a much more differentiated analysis. On the one hand, Becher’s strict dictate meant students had an obligation to fulfull but, on the other hand, also meant they had a guideline to emancipate themselves from forcibly if they ever wanted to arrive at their own position in fine-art photography. For Claudia Fährenkemper, who had already begun her study of photography under Arno Jansen at the Cologne University of Applied Sciences, the dictate could have hardly been any clearer or stricter. It consisted of a radical subjection of the photograph to the depicted object—a tremendously disciplinary impulse that, as is known, stands behind the life work that Bernd Becher, together with his wife Hilla, was able to accomplish over almost four decades and that inimitably stamped modus operandi: “This ‘ideal’ view of the object—that does not allow any digressions into evocative ‘irrelevancies’, that registers matter-of-factly and is alone directed at the object—is the prerequisite for a comparison to, and therefore also for the readability of, the objects.”[vi]

In the case of the excavators, however: was documentation really foremost in Claudia Fährenkemper’s mind—i.e., the creation of pictorial evidence via the imaging instrument of photography—as well as the prerequisites for a comparable viewing? In 1993, in any case, Gabriele Betancourt Nunez legitimized the artist’s struggle to achieve artistic autonomy by citing a veritable series of nuances that deviate from Becher’s way of working. “She does not use the sequence of photos that, in their monotony, show their comparable structures but rather depicts details, allowing the camera, as it were, to probe the extended length of the monstrous machine.”[vii] In a position paper, the artist herself expressly pointed to the fact that in three instances her work series differs substantially from that of the Bechers as to content. To begin with, she writes, the excavators are not static but dynamic contraptions. Further she thematized these giant machines in their relation to the landscape, whose substantial change through strip mining is likewise registered. And last of all, she was interested in “an involvement with the dimensions and proportions between man, machine and landscape.”[viii] 

Mandatory Distance

And indeed, a new look at the work series shows us that the formal and thematic parameters are more pointedly in the foreground than we first thought—interestingly enough as a result of our meanwhile schooled perception of viewing things in comparison—which visually distinguishes the Fördergeräte im Braunkohlentagebau from the mode of depiction subscribed to by the Bechers. Yet the familiar aesthetic criteria of the master can continue to be seen here: such as the consistent use of black and white, the expressly distanced view of the documented excavators, as well as the respect this shows that is almost physically tangible in Claudia Fährenkemper’s photos (while at the same time her series evokes a likewise typological way of seeing that hopes to set the specific functionality of the gigantic machines into a relationship with their filigree form). Yet already the question into which category to place the respective pictorial motifs as to their function and genre brings us irrevocably to a halt. From today’s perspective, the motifs—in a decidedly horizontal format—oscillate between document and impression, between portrait and landscape. This is expressed in an openness whose conceptual implementation cannot solely be explained by an unrestrictive impulse. In search of a reason for this brings us to biography as an obvious next step. In Claudia Fährenkemper’s case it was three extended trips that she took from 1987 to 1989 to the southwest United States. She focused her attention on the panoramic expanse of the American canyon and desert landscapes. In Europe, scenery of such comparable archaism and monumentality can at best be found in the opencast mining regions of West and East Germany, where the excavation and removal of the relevant earth layers have led to a radical transformation of the picture we have of the landscape. With a look at the strict status of visual evidence, the work series of the excavators can surely still be read today as critical commentary (from a required distance) on a civilization where man massively intervenes in nature. Whereby the degree is precisely calculated between the willful aesthetic fascination that a sight of these landscapes invokes and the violent character of the destructive interventions in nature. This is also true for the huge apparatuses of open-pit mining, the world’s largest machines, whose output of up to a 240,000 m3 volume by far exceeds the human power of imagination. Via an exactly balanced aspect of viewing and distance, the dinosaur-like contraptions—morphologically recorded in detail on the photographs—oscillate between their formal beauty and their irritating destructive functionality. In times in which technical progress is increasingly defined virtually, their physical ambivalence is all the more foregrounded.

World of Perception

At a gap of just short of two decades, Claudia Fährenkemper’s first work series has not only evoked a change in our way of seeing its rich fund of motifs. As early as 1993, Hans Jonas (whose writings Claudia Fährenkemper read in depth) arrived at a historic perspective in his book Dem bösen Ende näher. He pointed out that all premodern technology had at the time been macroscopic, “as was the oldest tool and as is the machine still today. In dealing with items of the visible physical world, technology stayed, so to speak, on the surface of things. Since then, it has descended to the molecular level. This it can now manipulate and from there construct materials that up to now never existed, change life forms, release energies. Never before has art in its elements so come to grips with nature.”[ix] From today’s point of view we tend to relate a philosopher’s analysis of time not only with a global technological development, but also with the genesis of Claudia Fährenkemper’s ongoing work. In 1994 it came to a rupture with her teacher; she transferred to Nan Hoover’s class in the art academy and, in the same year, began with the photographic exploration of the tiniest microscopic forms of life and structures, which has dominated her work till today. Retrospectively, the inversion from the largest to the smallest, from macro to micro, leaps quite obviously to the eye. In addition, the strained reference to Bernd and Hilla Becher appears today in another, clearly more mild light, not least of all because in the last years their work too has experienced a different reception. The impulse of substantiating has in any case yielded to that of showing and, with the growing loss of our industrial heritage, traces have—now in a later time frame—again become discernible, which we observe with a sense of childlike curiosity. The open-pit mining excavators seem at times like long surviving relics of a heavy industry whose existence appears to be more threatened than threatening.

And the goddess of photography? The reliability that is still innate to photography in its analogue character lends Claudia Fährenkemper’s pictures a special high value. And, one would like to add, also their own truth, about which we could long ponder over as to where concretely this truth can actually be found. Recently Bernd Stiegler, the photography theorist, observed that the female divinity of photography also needs to honor her creativity assignment. “Although she has conquered the most distant (outer space) and the most proximate (bacteria and the bizarre world of microbes), she must sacrifice herself and surrender her supposed most personal features in order to get close to the truth and be able to capture this truth in an image. She no longer finds her motif in the alleged objectivity of the world of things, but in her view of them. She has to create a new world in pictures: the world of perception.”[x]

© Christoph Schaden, 2009

 

[i] On the history of reception see Wolfgang Kemp, Theorie der Fotografie. Band I, 1839-1912, Munich 1980, pp. 164-186.

[ii] Peter Henry Emerson, Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Arts, 1899, 3rd ed., reprint, New York 1972, pp. 7, 10 and 15.

[iii] Allgemeine Theater-Zeitung, Vienna, 29 Aug. 1839, quoted in: Hans Frank, Vom Zauber alter Lichtbilder. Frühe Photographie in Österreich 1840-1869, Vienna, 1981, p. 21.

[iv] Claudia Gabriele Philipp, “Fotografische Dokumente der Industrialisierung” in: Claudia Fährenkemper, Fördergeräte im Braunkohlentagebau, exh. cat., Kreismuseum Peine, Peine 1993, p. 11.

[v] “I consciously didn’t take people who had involved themselves with industrial photography, because I didn’t want them to be influenced. With the exception of Claudia Fährenkemper, who photographed excavators, the big coal excavators here in the Rhine area.” Bernd Becher in: “Ulf  Erdmann Ziegler: The Becher’s Industrial Lexicon” (Interview with Bernd and Hilla Becher) in: Art in America, 6, 2002, p. 141.

[vi] Susanne Lange, “Bernd und Hilla Becher. ‘Den Gegenstand verkleinert mitnehmen‘” in: idem., Bernd und Hilla Becher. Häuser und Hallen, Frankfurt am Main 1992, p. 9.

[vii] Philipp, 1993, see fn. 4, p. 13.

[viii] Claudia Fährenkemper, “Meine Arbeit unterscheidet sich in wesentlichen Punkten von der Arbeit der Bechers”, typed manuscript, 1993.

[ix] Hans Jonas, Dem bösen Ende näher. Gespräche über das Verhältnis des Menschen zur Natur, Frankfurt am Main 1993, p. 95.

[x] Bernd Stiegler, Bilder der Photographie. Ein Album photographischer Metaphern, Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 122ff. 

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