Biblioteca PHE Madrid II is a large colour photograph of the interior of the Biblioteca del Instituto de Patrimonio Histórico Español, a modernist library in the Spanish capital. The photograph was produced in an edition of six; the work in Tate’s Collection is second in the series. The room depicted in the photograph is a panopticon, with a centrally sited librarians’ desk able to oversee readers in all parts of the reading room. In the foreground of the image computers, printers and other office equipment clutter a round table. Several empty chairs surround the table. Behind the desk three layers of book-lined shelves step back towards the wall. The shelves curve to follow the contours of the room. On the right side of the image the heavy wooden banister of a low staircase leading from the ground level to the first mezzanine is visible. Above it is the pale rounded form of a low wall partly screening another reading area. The circular shape of the room is mirrored in the dramatic design of the ceiling. A central circular light well is surrounded by large structural beams that extend to the room’s walls.
Between 1976 and 1982 Höfer studied fine art photography under Bernd and Hilla Becher (born 1931 and 1934 respectively) at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where her fellow students included Thomas Struth (born 1954), Thomas Ruff (born 1958) and Andreas Gursky (born 1955). Like her contemporaries Höfer was influenced by the formalism, emotional detachment and serial nature of the Bechers’ work (see Coal Bunkers, 1974, Tate T01923).
Höfer is best known for series of photographs that document the interiors of public and semi-public buildings including museums, theatres and spas. She has also photographed zoos. Biblioteca PHE Madrid II is one of an ongoing series of images of libraries she began taking in the late 1980s; she took several images of this library alone. All her series address institutions that define and structure western culture; her subjects have been limited to Europe and North America. Her pictures maintain a cool distance from the spaces they document. The library series in particular focuses the viewer’s attention on spatial systems of order designed to reflect and foster optimism in intellectual progress.
Höfer’s images are almost invariably empty of people. The unpopulated interior of Biblioteca PHE Madrid II however bears traces of human presence. The casual placement of the computers and chairs and the haphazard arrangement of some of the books on the shelves attest to the library’s use. The artist has discussed the lack of figures in her work, saying, ‘I think that because the people aren’t visible they are much more recognizable. You see that the rooms are made for people. Even when you don't see them, they are there’ (quoted in ‘Venice Biennale Opens with Enigmatic German Works’, Deutsche Welle, 15 June 2003, www2.dw-world.de/bscms_english/culture_and_lifestyle/1.29500.1.html)
It has been suggested that by leaving human figures out of her compositions Höfer puts the viewer in the position of the deserted rooms’ occupant. Her photographs are sharp and full of detail; her meticulous depiction encourages the viewer’s engrossed, almost voyeuristic gaze. This gaze is of particular relevance to this image, where she presents a building designed so that researchers may observe and be observed freely.
Michael Krüger, Candida Höfer: a Monograph, London, 2003.
Michael Oppitz, Candida Höfer: Leseräume, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Basel, 1999.
Julian Heynen, Candida Höfer, Martin Kippenberger: Venedig 2003, exhibition catalogue, German Pavilion, Venice Biennale, 2003.