Albert Renger-Patzsch

Woodcutter from the Ore Mountains

c.1933–4

In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Artist
Albert Renger-Patzsch 1897–1966
Original title
Erzgebirge Holzschnitzer
Medium
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Dimensions
Image: 230 x 170 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Photography Acquisitions Committee 2011
Reference
P79953

Summary

Woodcutter from the Ore Mountains is a black and white photographic portrait of an unidentified man. The composition tightly frames the sitter’s head and shoulders, which are angled towards the left, while his face turns to meet the viewer’s gaze. Emerging from a diffuse background, the man’s face is illuminated from the left by a bright light. The title reveals the nature of the man’s occupation: a woodcutter from a mountainous region in Germany bordering the modern-day Czech Republic. Without the title the photograph offers little visual information about the identity of its subject. Instead, the viewer’s attention is drawn to details rendered clearly and sharply within the image – round polished glasses, wiry moustache, furrowed brow, stubble, a half-smoked cigar – details that become so insistent in Renger-Patszch’s photographs 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).

The inhabitants of the Ore Mountains region began woodcarving to supplement their incomes after the lucrative silver-mining industry began to wind down at the end of the eighteenth century, and became noted for producing handcrafted wooden figurines. At the turn of the twentieth century German craft culture stood in contrast to the rapid rebuilding of Germany as an industrial power. From the mid-1920s Renger-Patzsch embarked on a series of photographs documenting the changing landscape of the Ruhr valley, the region at the centre of the country’s coal and steel production. Art historian Brian Stokoe has drawn attention to a prevailing sentiment in early twentieth-century Germany, an ‘antagonism between modernism and tradition, between a forward-looking optimism and a melancholic longing for an apparently disappearing world’ (Stokoe 1978, p.97).

Portraits are infrequent within Renger-Patszch’s oeuvre, and were rarely exhibited during his lifetime. Woodcutter from the Ore Mountains bears comparison to the portraits of August Sander (1876–1964), a German photographer known for his prolific documentation of German citizens (Tate AL00002AL00177; P20343P20347). Rather than identifying his sitters by name, Sander classified his subjects by their occupation or social class. Similarly, the man at the centre of Renger-Patzsch’s portrait remains anonymous, identified only by his profession as a craftsman.

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’ (Renger-Patzsch 1928, p.647). 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.

Woodcutter from the Ore Mountains demonstrates this sober and precise style, characterised by sharp focus, careful lighting and purposeful framing. Alongside the German photographers August Sander 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
Brian Stokoe, ‘Renger-Patszch: New Realist Photographer’ in David Mellor (ed.), Germany: The New Photography 1927–33, London 1978, p.95–9.
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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