Friday, November 14, 2014

Gottfried Jäger at Photo Edition Berlin

Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 1986-VI-1-3, 1986

In photography, the 1960s was a period of considerable excitement, uncertainty, and turmoil.  The achievements of the great experimental work of the Bauhaus, both German and its later incarnation in Chicago, were behind us, even if its aesthetic and methods were not fully absorbed by a wider public.  Scientific uses of photography began to tantalize with big steps forward in photomicroscopy and electron microscopy.  The advent of digital was on the horizon, nascent but inexorable.  Color photography was emerging and becoming an attractive, and soon a required, addition to black-and-white.  In painting and sculpture, abstraction of one kind or another was the ruling mode.  For certain photographers, there was a growing dissatisfaction with the dominant ethos of representational photography, of pictures that sought simply to capture and reproduce what was seen by the lens.  They had the radical vision of a photography that was about nothing but itself, not the messiness and the contingency of the external world.  They called for Fox Talbot's 'photogenic drawing' but for a new age.  They wanted to create, not re-create.  They debated what it even meant to be a photograph, that stubborn physical object composed of animal protein, silver salts, and light.

Jäger, 111104.4, 2011

Into this mix came a young artist and theoretician named Gottfried Jäger who, in a series of group shows beginning in 1968, crystallized and formalized this restlessness into an agenda, or more accurately several agendas, with robust-sounding names like Concrete Photography and Generative Photography.
Jäger, Fotopapierarbeit 2011-III-1-2, 2011

In reaching back to the antecedants of concrete photography, Jäger found a forerunner in Alvin Langdon Coburn, the early British abstractionist and disciple of Ezra Pound; another touchstone was Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, who had preached the primacy of the emulsion as the ultimate locus of photographic expressivity.
Coburn, 1917

The name for his movement though not the doctrine as a whole came from Theo van Doesburg's 1929 manifesto on Concrete Art, which followed the De Stijl movement and the thinking of Mondrian.  Mondrian liked straight parallel lines and primary colors and more than anything, precision.  (For a while van Doesburg and Mondrian clashed over diagonals and broke off relations for several years).

Time has been kind to us and Jäger's turn of the concept was more tolerant: it embraced a broad spectrum of non-objective photography from computer-driven images (the term Generative Photography stems largely from this) to entirely cameraless work using chemical action operating at the emulsion surface; even strange apparatus had a place in his system, from oscilloscopes (Franke) to light-filtering contraptions (Humbert) to pinhole cameras (Jäger himself, early on).
Moholy-Nagy, 1922
What was important - what remains important - is the idea that you can create or discover a new reality of space and time just by rethinking the most minimal elements of photography, the physics and physicality of it and its optics.  It is this search for a crossing-over, a transmigration mediated by process and technique, that shapes the Jäger aesthetic in order to finally become one with it: ostensible 'beauty' is not a critical category here at all.  In this it is consummately postmodern.

Photo Edition Berlin has embarked on the staging of a two-part exhibition entitled 'Concrete and Generative Photography 1960-2014' which is meant both as an homage to what Gottfried Jäger was instrumental in launching as well, perhaps, as an announcement of future work to be done.  Part One - The Pioneers, runs until December 20, 2014, and includes many of the original posse: Heinz Hajek-Halke, Herbert W. Franke, Pierre Cordier & Gundi Falk, Roger Humbert, Hein Gravenhorst, Karl-Martin Holzhäuser, René Mächler, Gottfried Jäger.  Part Two, with a contemporary and possibly more international cast, will arrive in the fall of 2015.

at the opening, October 18
You can download a pdf file of the informative 46-page catalog at the Photo Edition Berlin site.  For a thorough account of the history, concepts and methods of a large roster of experimental and non-objective artists, consult Jäger's Bildgebende Fotografie (Köln 1988).  The Folkwang Museum online is an excellent source of images.


  1. What about Otto Steinert? Or Chargesheimer? Were they part of the Concrete group? I suspect not but I wonder what the reasons were.

    1. The artistic atmosphere at the end of the war in Germany was permeated with grave existential doubt and a search for sense in a meaningless world. Art had been turned on its head, like everything else, and no one quite knew how to begin again. So experiment became a main feature of the new photography as did a looking inward, a taste for subjectivity. The artists you mention came forward in this period. It was only later, in the 60s, that rationality and logical procedures and the use of carefully conceived apparatus began to predominate - the period of Concrete and Generative Photography. Jäger and his colleagues took pains to distinguish themselves from those who came just before while often admitting their important contributions to the art.

      That's the way I read it at least. Thanks for the useful question.

  2. Thank you Doug. Another important post. Have learned a great deal from the information so nicely presented in these posts.