Communion Bench, Kreneheide 1935, printed 1977 depicts a portion of a curving stone banister at the foot of some highly polished black steps. The title of the photograph locates the scene in a church by indicating that the banister serves as a communion bench, which in turn implies that the steps lead to an altar. The elegant curve of the banister bridges the left-hand edge of the picture to the top, while the steps to the right of the composition parallel and continue this arc down towards the bottom right-hand corner. Mantz’s choice of shot is characterised by contrasts, between the rigidly square tiles of the floor and the graceful curve of the central elements, as well as between the pale, bulky columns of the banister and the dark sheen of the steps. However, a striking use of light and shadow smoothes these contrasts: the grooves in the columns exhibit shades of various tones, while their shadows on the floor ease the transition towards the dark steps on the right. This photograph reveals Mantz’s ability to frame architectural features as if they were props in a theatrical set.
Communion Bench, Kreneheide is part of a portfolio of ten small, black and white gelatin silver prints that were selected by Mantz towards the end of his life as representative of his finest work. They were reprinted in 1977 in collaboration with the Berlin-based gallery Schurmann and Kicken in an edition of twenty-five plus ten artist’s proofs. Tate’s group of ten prints is number twenty. Each print is signed and dated at the bottom of the image.
Mantz began his career primarily as a portrait and advertising photographer, setting up a studio in 1921, before becoming one of the most prominent photographers of the Neues Bauen movement of modernist architecture in Cologne. In 1926 he started receiving commissions as an architectural photographer from figures such as Wilhelm Riphahn, Erich Mendelsohn, Bruno Paul and other representatives of avant-garde architecture who were implementing Konrad Adenauer’s housing policy in the city. Echoing the transformation of urban areas across Germany, the policy aimed to address the post-war shortage of viable accommodation in Cologne by producing modern, functional and high-capacity housing. Mantz established a second studio in Maastricht in 1932, moving there in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution, and his focus returned principally to portraiture.
Mantz’s unpeopled photographs, with their focus on geometry emphasised by intense shadowing, often have an air of objectivity and cleanliness that highlights the functionality of the buildings he captured. His widely disseminated photographs also contributed to the international appreciation of modernist architecture, whereby architects around the world could acquaint themselves with the new building sensibilities emerging in Russia, Germany, America and France in particular. Along with Albert Renger-Patzch (1897–1966) and August Sander (1876–1964), Mantz was a key exponent of the New Objectivity movement in pre-war German photography. With his formal compositions he is considered a precursor to some of the most important movements in post-war European photography, including the formalist architectural photography of Bernd Becher (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–2015), and the detached objectivity of the work of Düsseldorf School artists like Thomas Struth (born 1954). The deep shadows Mantz employed also anticipate those seen in the architectural and landscape imagery created by American photographers such as Robert Adams (born 1937) and Lewis Baltz (1945–2014).
Werner Mantz: Architekturphotographie in Köln 1926–1932, exhibition catalogue, Museum Ludwig, Cologne 1982.
Maria Morris Hambourg and Christopher Phillips, The New Vision: Photography Between the World Wars, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1989, pp.78–9.
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