Albert Renger-Patzsch

Greifswald, St Nicholas’s Church, Series: North German Brick Cathedrals


View this artwork by appointment, at Tate Britain's Prints and Drawings Rooms

Albert Renger-Patzsch 1897–1966
Original title
Greifswald, Nikolaikirche, Serie: Norddeutsche Backsteindome
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 228 x 172 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2011


Greifswald, St Nicholas’s Church is a black and white photograph picturing the exterior of a brick gothic church. The title identifies the building as the church of St Nicholas in Greifswald, a town in north-east Germany bordering the Baltic Sea. Built in the thirteenth century, the church is dedicated to the patron saint of seafarers and merchants. The lower half of the image is dominated by the intersecting tiled roofs of a two storey octagon. Above this rises a tall, ornate tower, topped with a curved double lantern that resembles the onion domes of Russian Orthodox churches. Rendered clearly and sharply, the building dominates the image, filling the frame and blocking out environmental detail; only telegraph wires are faintly discernible criss-crossing behind the tower.

Church architecture became a recurring motif and an enduring subject in Renger-Patzsch’s photographic work (Greifswald, St Nicholas’s Church was published alongside Stralsund – St Mary’s Church, Nave from the Choir c.1928, Tate P79957, in a 1930 volume titled North German Cathedrals). This objective documentation of a predetermined theme bears comparison with the later photographic work of German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931–2007 and born 1934) who in the late 1950s began systematically photographing ‘types’ of industrial structures (water towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks) in a similarly detached aesthetic style (see, for example, Coal Bunkers 1974, Tate T01923).

Renger-Patzch photographed numerous German towns and cities, using his camera to document the modern cityscape (see, for example, Hamburg Port c.1929, Tate P79960). In this body of work – which includes aerial city views as well as tightly-framed viewpoints photographed from unusual perspectives – objects are often reduced to fragments and architectural details take precedence over a comprehensive world view. Renger-Patzsch used photography to isolate, frame and focus attention on details of the material world rendered clearly and sharply within the image. 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).

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’ (ibid). 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.

Greifswald, St Nicholas’s Church demonstrates this sober and precise style, characterised by sharp focus 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.

Further reading
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 Wilde, 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.

Sabina Jaskot-Gill
March 2012

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