In March 2006, Robert Adams won a prestigious international photography prize for his black-and-white images of the American north-west. This accolade didn’t simply reflect the taste of the judges. His deadpan approach, seemingly devoid of artistic personality, lets a deforested hillside or a sprawling industrial estate speak for itself, and Adams has influenced a whole generation of European artists.
Adams, now 69, came from the generation of American photographers after Walker Evans. Evans was employed by the governments Farm Security Administration (FSA), whose staff took more than 150,000 photographs in the 1930s and 1940s as they documented the fast-changing environment and population. The FSA pictures were in marked contrast to the ambitions of the more formal work made by Alfred Stieglitz and his circle, who showed at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery in New York and campaigned for photography to be taken seriously as an art form. Today, the realist tradition of Evans and Adams increasingly dominates contemporary photography, and feeds into the work of such artists as Andreas Gursky, Massimo Vitali and Beat Streuli.
In his 1970–4 series, What We Bought: The New World (Scenes From the Denver Metropolitan Area), Adams photographed vast factory floors filled with anonymous workers, retail mall architecture that dominated suburban vistas, dozens of different brands of bread crammed on unending supermarket shelves. The series offered a stark and yet non-judgemental view of Americas growing love of mass consumption. Fast forward twenty-five years, and Gursky – making use of the latest technology to create giant colour-saturated prints – similarly focuses on society’s rampant need to consume. Hundreds of types of chocolate bars and biscuits rhythmically fill the shelves in 99 Cent 1999. The vastness of the print (over three metres long) emphasises the obscene scale of today’s shopping experience, where the brightly coloured packets of processed foods threaten to overwhelm the faceless consumers only just visible in the aisles.
In other works, Gursky highlights the bland and repetitive architecture of our everyday lives, from a Toys R Us store in a retail park to the central atrium of a vast hotel in Shanghai. These places, or rather non-places, could be anywhere. Nothing about them relates to their immediate environment and we feel lost, rootless, engulfed, just looking at them.
When people do feature in Gursky’s work – as in Autosalon, Paris 1993 – they are massed together, not presented as individuals but as a faceless populace, shopping, consuming. Italian photographers Luigi Ghirri, Massimo Vitali and Olivo Barbieri also remove any sense of the individual from their work. Following in the realist tradition, they photograph the world as built by humans with straightforward honesty, devoid of any romanticism. There are no flattering angles here, no airbrushing of unwanted elements. What they see is what you get, however distasteful. In Vitali’s large-format beach scenes, such as Riccione 1998, people mill around long rows of sunbeds, the uncompromising geometry of the loungers matched by the high-rise apartment blocks that tower over the narrow strip of beach. By imposing manmade order on nature, the simple beauty of the beach has been obliterated by our desire to occupy it. Barbieri uses a helicopter to give him an aerial perspective on each city he photographs, and in his photographs of Siena people appear in anonymous crowds, no bigger than map-pins.
While the influence of the American realist tradition on contemporary European photography is strong, the importance of German artistic duo Bernd and Hilla Becher must not be overlooked. Bernd and Hilla Becher taught a whole generation of German photographers including Gursky, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. Working together for over 40 years, the Bechers have systematically photographed the overlooked industrial heartland of both Europe and America, classifying their work by subject or shape or end product, giving gas tanks and water towers a timeless gravity through very rigorous and symmetrical framing. Their work has a precision emphasized by its display in typological formations, a method of presentation also favoured by Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whether of flowers from municipal gardens, street signs in the snow or iconic tourist sights. Candida Höfer studied under Bernd Becher at the Düsseldorf Academy, and her large-scale architectural photographs of public buildings echo the clean lines and geometries of the Bechers work. But Höfer concentrates on architecture designed for one purpose but used for another – a swagged hall becomes a makeshift lecture theatre, a grand central atrium is hijacked by a temporary café – and uses an asymmetric framing process to heighten the sense of discord between intent and actuality.
The influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher is also evident in Thomas Ruff’s large-scale portraits, a series he began in 1981 while studying at the Düsseldorf Academy. He uses the bland format of a passport photo – head and shoulders against a flat monochrome ground, the subject looking blankly at the camera – scaled up to larger than life-size to imply that little can be read of a person in this way. We are officially identified by our passport photos, but how much do they really reveal about us? He photographs the surface of each person, as he says, not their character, and despite their notable physiognomic differences – a riotous hairstyle, furrowed brow, scarred lip, glasses – we soon lose track of them when presented with a homogenous installation of dozens of human faces.
Swiss artist Beat Streuli takes his camera on to the street, but the people he encounters there are no more revealed to us than those in Ruff’s photographs. If a painted portrait is designed to reveal something of the identity of the sitter – their emotions, the essence of their character – in Streuli’s work we are presented with the opposite. Captured by the distant gaze of his telephoto lens, the subject is always an unwitting participant. In the late 1930s, Walker Evans used a hidden camera to take similar clandestine portraits on the New York subway, and in both Evans’s and Streuli’s work we see the participant exposed. They are not posing for the photographer or for a group of friends. They are grimacing or pensive, squinting or smiling, but we will never know what thoughts are causing these emotions to fleetingly appear on their faces and be captured for perpetuity by these secretive photographers. Each person exists in their own private world, as they negotiate a packed city made up of strangers. We don’t know them, and we never will.