Bookbinder Gilding is a black and white photograph documenting a stage in the traditional bookbinding process, whereby sheets of gold leaf are applied to the edges of bound books. The action appears to unfold within a workshop, though no specific location is discernable from the carefully-cropped photograph or from its title. The tight framing of the composition isolates the craftsman’s hands and omits his facial features. This purposeful cropping renders the man anonymous. Attention is instead focused on the bookbinder’s materials and tools: a gilder’s press, sheets of gold leaf, a brush and adhesive. The image is composed of a series of graphic lines created by the pressing machine, the books, the sheets of gold leaf and the diagonal lapels. These create a sense of linear geometry that contrasts with the circular adhesive bowl in the top-left corner. Rendered clearly and sharply, these details become so insistent as to form an ‘inner’ composition within the pictorial frame (Donald Kuspit, Albert Renger-Patzsch: Joy Before the Object, New York 1993, p.69). Renger-Patzsch used photography to isolate, frame and focus attention on details of the material world. By supplementing human vision in this way, his photographs encourage the viewer to ‘look at things from a new vantage point’ and take increased ‘joy’ in seeing the world of objects anew (Renger-Patzsch 1928, p.647).
Gilding was traditionally performed by skilled specialist craftsmen. At the turn of the twentieth century, German craft culture stood in contrast to the rapid rebuilding of Germany as an industrial power. From the mid-1920s Renger-Patzsch embarked on a series of photographs documenting the changing landscape of the Ruhr valley, the region at the centre of the country’s coal and steel production. Art historian Brian Stokoe has drawn attention to a prevailing sentiment in early twentieth-century Germany, an ‘antagonism between modernism and tradition, between a forward-looking optimism and a melancholic longing for an apparently disappearing world’ (Stokoe 1978, p.97).
Renger-Patzsch’s images tie into contemporary debates about the role of photography in German society, bearing witness to a crisis over the proper function and potential of the medium. In 1925 he published a text outlining his ‘Heretical Thoughts on Artistic Photography’, positioning himself in opposition to the popular Pictorialist style of art photography, characterised by atmospheric, soft-focus portraits and still lifes that were often manipulated or overlaid with coloured pigment. Renger-Patzsch criticised photographic attempts to ‘feign’ a painterly style, believing them to be ‘damaging to photographic achievement’ (Renger-Patzsch 1928, p.647). Instead, he insisted that photographers should master their equipment and employ rigorous camera work, so as to create realistic and descriptive images through purely photographic means.
Bookbinder Gilding demonstrates this sober and precise style, characterised by sharp focus, careful lighting and purposeful framing. Alongside the German photographers August Sander (1876–1964) and Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), Renger-Patzsch came to be known as one of the leading proponents of this style of photography, labelled New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) following the 1928 publication of Renger-Patzsch’s picture book The World is Beautiful. (The term had originally been used by the art critic Gustav Hartlaub in 1925 to describe a new style of German painting.) According to the curator Matthew S. Witkovsky, Renger-Patzsch’s images ‘oscillate in subject between industry and nature: with a regular admixture of Gothic cathedrals, German churches and small towns’ (Witkovsky 2007, p.112). Gazing across the German landscape in all its variety, Renger-Patzsch captured simple insights into ordinary life with an almost encyclopaedic fervour.
Brian Stokoe, ‘Renger-Patszch: New Realist Photographer’ in David Mellor (ed.), Germany: The New Photography 1927–33, London 1978, p.95–9.
Albert Renger-Patzsch, ‘Joy Before the Object’ (1928), in Anton Kaes, Martin Jay and Edward Dimendberg (eds.), The Weimer Republic Sourcebook, Berkeley 1994, p.647.
Ann and Jürgen Wilde and Thomas Weski (eds.), Albert Renger-Patzsch: Photographer of Objectivity, London 1997.
Matthew S. Witkovsky, Foto: Modernity in Central Europe 1918–1945, exhibition catalogue, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York 2007.