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Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966): Photographs


From October 24th through December 9th, 2006, Zabriskie Gallery exhibits photographs of machines and trees by German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966). Breaking new ground in the Bauhaus, Renger-Patzsch’s photographs from the 1920s to 1950s excavate startling beauty and clarity from mundane sights of plants, buildings, and industrial machines. The selected works reflect the common beauty in diverse objects, illustrating the title of his most important volume of works: Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful).

When Renger-Patzsch’s book of plant and machine photographs was ready for publication in 1928, he intended it to be entitled just what it depicted: Die Dinge (The Things). A meticulous investigation of objects, the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), shared sensibilities with Ed Weston. Renger-Patzsch commented, “We still don't appreciate the opportunity to capture the magic of material things. The structure of wood, stone and metal can be shown [in photography] with a perfection beyond the means of painting.” Photography, which Renger-Patzsch helped nurse through its adolescence, was re-investigating issues that painting had recently put aside in what he called “photographic photography.” With scientific attention to detail, he invests beauty in monstrous vistas of pistons, screws, emotionless levers. He shows us a similar beauty in trees, flowers, and streams of water. The new matter-of-factness was not objective in the sense of pure documentation, but as a response to two bodies of subject matter that are equally inhuman. Renger neither fetishizes nor ladens down the Things with symbolic importance, but invests them with beauty all the same. With this in mind, the book’s publisher offered the saccharine alternative, The World is Beautiful. Renger-Patzsch’s mastery is in making it impossible to again imagine the world without the beauty his deft photography has added.

For the beauty he added, one can’t ignore what was subtracted: only by cropping out social contexts, symbolic content, and human reference in general, did he—for better or worse—reinvent the things he photographed so that they could be seen with fresh eyes. Portraits were the tiniest of footnotes to his oeuvre; landscapes occupied his attention only insomuch as they are arrangements of things, never as settings. Renger-Patzsch’s contemporary, Walter Benjamin loathed the work for this removal from historical and social contexts, and perhaps these values are at odds. This quarrel, along with this new love of seeing, have left their indelible mark on photography, inspiring the cold aesthetic of the Bechers and the expansive vistas of Andreas Gursky. The lack of context also allows these images a timeless beauty that is undeniable.

Albert Renger-Patzsch (1897-1966) was born in Wurzburg, Germany, and spent much of his life in Essen and Wamel bei Soest, where he died. Among numerous books and solo exhibitions, his work found critical acclaim with 1928’s Die Welt ist schön and 1962’s Die Baume (The Trees). Renger-Patzsch was director of the photography department of the Folkwang publishing house, and head of the Department of Pictorial Photography in Folkwangschule, until clash of principles with Nazis forced his resignation. The Philadelphia Museum of Art organized a major retrospective in 1993.

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