Albert Renger-Patzsch

Picture Gallery Dresden


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Albert Renger-Patzsch 1897–1966
Original title
Gemäldegalerie Dresden
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 169 × 229 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2011


Picture Gallery Dresden is a black and white photograph picturing a neo-classical building façade. The scene is unpopulated except for ghostly apparitions that appear before the building: blurred figures moving across the courtyard during the long exposure time. The title identifies the building as the Picture Gallery in Dresden, an art gallery housed in the Semper Building (Semperbau). Designed in an austere and restrained neo-classical style by the German architect Gottfried Semper (1803–1879), the gallery opened in 1855 to house the royal collection of Italian renaissance art and Dutch and Flemish painting. By the time this photograph was taken, Dresden had established itself as an important cultural centre.

Rather than photographing the Semper Building in its entirety, Renger-Patzsch selectively cropped the central portion of the building. Consequently the façade fills the picture frame, dominating the image. This purposeful cropping highlights the symmetry of the building and draws attention to architectural features of the neo-classical façade: triangular pediments, Corinthian columns, arches and shallow carved reliefs. Rendered clearly and sharply, these details become so insistent as to form an ‘inner’ composition within the pictorial frame (Donald Kuspit, Albert Renger-Patzsch: Joy Before the Object, New York 1993, p.69). Renger-Patzsch used photography to isolate, frame and focus attention on details of the material world. 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-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’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.

Picture Gallery Dresden demonstrates this sober and precise style, characterised by sharp focus, careful lighting 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 and 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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