“How has the Ruhr district changed over the years? How do artists see the Ruhr Metropolis now?” asks the introductory page of the Ruhr Views exhibitions. First of all, why is this interesting? As it turns out, the Ruhr District has undergone massive changes over the past decades. The largest urban center in Germany - composed of various cities, which, in effect, form a mega-city inhabited by 12 million people - the Ruhr District formerly was the home of large parts of the country’s heavy industry: Coal, steel. Essen, one of the main cities, housed the infamous Krupp empire. Most of this came down, the steel mills are gone, the region changed massively - just like its counterparts in, for example, the US or Britain. How did the Germans deal with this transformation? (more)
To find out, curator Thomas Weski invited photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher, Laurenz Berges, Joachim Brohm, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Andreas Gursky, Jitka Hanzlová, Candida Höfer, Matthias Koch, Elisabeth Neudörfl, Jörg Sasse and Thomas Struth to produce work in the region, which was put on display in Essen, and which now can also be viewed in Ruhr Views. That’s an impressive roster of photographers, from Düsseldorf (of course!) and beyond. How did they do?
Hilla Becher contributed older work done with her husband Bernd, cooling towers and whatever else there used to be in the Ruhr District. This is, of course, a very fitting environment for these photographs to be in, in particular since they manage to come across as less typologyish than you’d imagine. Everybody else went out to produce new work, some, as can be expected, more interesting, some less so. Needless to say, the viewer’s personal preference will have a big role in deciding which work to prefer, even though I am also tempted to think that some artists might have been a bit more inventive than others.
All in all, for me the biggest disappointments were the artists I was looking forward to, some of the big names. I don’t know whether I might have simply expected too much, or whether I’ve just grown a bit tired of seeing the same shtick over and over again. As a result, the not-so-well-known artists essentially were given a chance to shine, and this they did (lest the Germans emails me, by “not-so-well-known” I mean outside of Germany). If people need a reminder that German photography is more than the Bechers or Andreas Gursky, Ruhr Views offers a welcome opportunity to discover photographers whose work deserves much wider exposure.
For example, Jörg Sasse’s conceptual approach to Ruhr images - entitled Speicher II and containing 512 unique images (“The output material used comes from the period between the mid 50s and 2009” - quoted from the intro of his section, p. 186) - is much more interesting than those who find conceptual work a bit soulless (which, in all fairness, it often is) might realize. Elisabeth Neudörfl’s b/w images of trees near the ubiquitous cookie-cutter apartment blocks in the region are intensely beautiful and deceptively simple. Matthias Koch out-Gurskys the master by using less digital work and slightly less formal compositions, to arrive at images that speak - and not merely put things on display. Jitka Hanzlová mixes portraiture and landscapes to startling effect (as it turns out the three older images clearly fall flat in the context of the intensely powerful new ones).
Add to the mix some great text in the beginning, and you get a unique opportunity to see some of Germany’s finest photographers at work. Recommended!
Ruhr Views, photographs by Hilla and Becher Becher, Laurenz Berges, Joachim Brohm, Hans-Peter Feldmann, Andreas Gursky, Jitka Hanzlová, Candida Höfer, Matthias Koch, Elisabeth Neudörfl, Jörg Sasse and Thomas Struth, essays by Sigrid Schneider and Thomas Weski, 240 pages, Walther König, 2010