Staircase Ursuliner Lyzeum, Cologne 1928, printed 1977 depicts a stairwell in a secondary school, photographed directly upward from one of the lower floors. Each part of the staircase has different lighting, creating a varied interplay of light and shadow, while the concrete structure enhances the geometric character of the composition. Seen from below, each floor appears as a slightly tilted four-sided figure decreasing in size and drawing attention to the vanishing point on the ceiling, where there is a dark circle, perhaps a light fixture. In a spiral effect, the fading of tones connects each level to the next while conveying an intense sense of depth. The image transforms the building’s modernist features into pure forms and abstraction.
Staircase Ursuliner Lyzeum, Cologne 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. The depiction of the bare interiors of buildings and overlooked details, as seen in Staircase Ursuliner Lyzeum, Cologne, reveals Mantz’s ability to capture the overall atmosphere of modernist architectural projects of the time. This is further exemplified by other images from the portfolio including Detail Kalkerfeld Settlement, Cologne 1928, printed 1977 (Tate P79945) and Kölnische Zeitung, Pressa, Cologne 1928, printed 1977 (Tate P79948).
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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