Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen I is a large colour photograph of the interior of the Abbey Library of St. Gallen, the oldest monastic library in Switzerland. The photograph was produced in an edition of six; the work in Tate’s Collection is first in the series. The image is taken from a high viewpoint, looking down on a baroque hall where nine glass display cases rest on a patterned wooden floor. The walls are lined with ornate bookshelves which curve into a series of alcoves. A balcony runs around the top of the hall; it too is lined with bookshelves. The serpentine shape of the balcony is highlighted with a decorative metal balustrade. The most striking feature of the hall is the vaulted ceiling which is decorated with elaborate frescos and rococo cornicing. Höfer’s image flattens the perspective of the hall; the library’s dramatic ceiling fills more than a third of the picture.
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. Stiftsbibliothek St. Gallen I is one of an ongoing series of images of libraries she began taking in the late 1980s. 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 human presence. Unusually, this photograph includes images of people but the long exposure time Höfer required to make use of the available light in the hall has rendered the figures blurry. Visitors to the library appear like ghostly apparitions, suggesting the transience of life and the passage of time. The building and the books and artworks that fill it appear far more substantial and enduring than the people who pass through.
The image also includes a visual joke. On the far wall of the library is a large sign banning photography. The incongruity of the modern sign in the baroque interior and the large size of the plaque make this detail difficult to overlook.
Michael Krüger, Candida Höfer: a Monograph, London, 2003, reproduced p.99 in colour.
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.