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ART : German Frame of Reference : In a lecture, Jonathan Green examines how contemporary photographers have shifted their focus and how historical context is seen--or obscured--through a lens.

March 21, 1995|CATHY CURTIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEWPORT BEACH — Is there a specifically "German" way of seeing? Did the enormity of the horrors inflicted under the Third Reich cause contemporary German photographers to back away from involvement with their own history?

Jonathan Green, director of the California Museum of Photography at UC Riverside, explored these provocative questions during a talk last week at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, using the Newport Harbor's recent exhibition of Jochen Gerz's photography as a fulcrum.

Green opened his talk with a historical perspective. In the 1930s, German Dada artist John Heartfield (born Helmut Herzfelde) responded to Hitler's ascendancy with bitterly anti-Nazi text-and-photo montages. One of these works tellingly juxtaposes two images: a medieval church carving of a saint tortured on a wheel and a nude man bound to a giant swastika. Another image sarcastically proposes the apoplectic images of Hitler and Nazi field marshal Hermann Goering as the Nobel Prize candidates favored by neo-Romantic novelist and Nazi supporter Knut Hamsun.

Artists in many countries continue to make work that boldly questions the status quo. Green showed some of Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko's giant, irreverent projections on historical buildings as examples of unequivocal political engagement.

But postwar German photographers withdrew "from this multimedia look at the real world," Green said.

Beginning in the late 1950s, Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed free-standing industrial structures: water towers, blast furnaces, grain silos. Combined into serial formats, the black-and-white images of each type of structure--devoid of landscape features and any human presence--painstakingly document industrialization in the Ruhr Basin.

The Bechers were indebted to August Sander, the famous German photographer whose memorable photographs of people in their habitual settings documented diverse professions and social groups between 1910 and 1951. Even Sander had "a propensity to pull back" from involvement with his sitters in another instance of "the Teutonic love of the catalogue," Green said.

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But the Bechers take this propensity even further, according to Green. Their photographs, he said, embody a distance "from the actual history of a society, a society that architecturally and culturally had something to do with the great catastrophe of the 20th Century."

Remarking that his radical interpretation will probably provoke criticism from colleagues on both the left and the right, Green said that the Bechers' subjects brought to mind the ovens and smokestacks of the concentration camps.

The photographs "don't have the kind of individuality we think of when we think of a democratic society," he added. "The absolute uniformity from object to object (seems to) look away from culture rather than toward culture. . . . We're finally left with a sense of isolation."

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The Bechers inspired a generation of German photographers, some of whom--Thomas Struth, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff--were included in "Typologies," an exhibition of conceptual photography by artists from several countries that was shown at Newport Harbor in 1991. Rather than discuss the Germans' work in terms of art strategies, however, Green took a different tack.

Struth, whose "virtually interchangeable" black-and-white photographs of cities in Germany and other countries never include people, reveals "a hollow moment in the life of a contemporary city," said Green, "the world in a kind of twilight zone. . . . (It's) as if to say there are no fundamental differences between (different cultures), rather than squarely facing the history of Germany."

Hofer's color photos of the unpopulated interiors of German official buildings--rooms that witnessed such historic moments as the 1945 Potsdam Conference--reveal only hints of the past (a map on the wall, a Roman statue). Even when Hofer photographs a grid of official photographs on a wall, she seems to be emphasizing their "interchangeability," Green said, "as if to say, 'I can't really do anything; I'm a cog in a wheel.' "

Ruff does photograph people--his work consists of very large portraits--but he insists on "a kind of neutrality," Green said. "There is a refusal to (see) these faces at peak moments. They become like the (Bechers') water towers, like catalogues, like insects under glass.

"I ask myself: Why this constant refusal to make more inflammatory photographs? Perhaps the (temporal) distance and agony is too great to bridge. . . . This glassy gallery of heads and faces (suggests) a world in which people don't seem to communicate."

In Green's view, Gerz shares the pervasive tendency of German photographers to reject overt, dramatic imagery in favor of an indirect approach.

In "2,146 Stones--Monument Against Racism, Saarbrucken," a self-effacing anti-Nazi monument from 1993, Gerz had the backs of the stones leading up to the former Gestapo headquarters inscribed with the names of Jewish cemeteries in Germany.

"The articulation is very precisely Germanic," Green said. "Yes, this happened, but we can't quite see it. If you know enough and you're sophisticated enough, walking over these stones will bring the destruction to mind."

But if you don't know about the project, the stones are just something to step on. "It's a funny kind of glancing reference, simultaneously overt and covert," Green said.

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A 1972 piece by Gerz consisted of the artist standing on a street, next to a photograph of his own face, "hoping someone would recognize . . . there is some relation between reality and a reproduction, between our psyche as it exists now and our psyche in memory," Green said.

In such work, Green finds an acknowledgment that "we can on some level tie ourselves to history." Clearly, he finds this approach a hopeful sign.

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