Hamburg, Port Scene is a black and white photograph documenting a port in the German city of Hamburg. At the centre of the composition is a wooden hut emblazoned with white paint advertising motorboats for rent. The hut is situated at the end of a jetty, around which several boats are tethered. The facades of buildings line the horizon in the distance, while a road running parallel to the water’s edge is populated by carriages. The image appears to document a thriving transport hub; an impression that is subtly undermined by the lack of any active human presence.
In the late 1920s when this photograph was taken, Hamburg was an affluent city on the River Elbe. Proclaimed as Germany’s ‘gateway to the world,’ Hamburg was the country’s largest seaport and played a key role in facilitating its commercial prosperity. Hamburg, Port Scene belongs to a series of photographs of the city taken by Renger-Patzsch that were published as a complete volume in 1930 (see also Hamburg, St Nicholas’s Church c.1929, Tate P79964).
Renger-Patzch photographed numerous German towns and cities, using his camera to document the modern cityscape. Noting how the clarity of photographic imagery corresponded to the ‘rationality and functionality’ of modern Germany, Renger-Patzsch aimed to ‘do justice to the stark web of lines of modern technology, to the massive girders of cranes and bridges, to the dynamism of 1,000 horsepower machines’ (Albert Renger-Patzsch, ‘Goals’, in Das Deutsche Lichtbild, Berlin 1927, p.xviii). 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.
Hamburg, Port Scene 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.
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.
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