Given the fact that our phones now put the power and clarity of 8 megapixels in the palm of our hands, I think it’s fair to say that all that convenience has probably left our appreciation for art form of photography lacking. Which isn’t to say that that accessibility is a a bad thing by any means. But I do remember pretty clearly sitting in an art history class, marveling at a slide of Ansel Adam’s Taos Pueblo only to have the kid a few rows back raise his hand and ask, with all the conviction of someone who’s thought about their question for about a millisecond, what made the image worthy of our discussion. It was just a picture of a building, and what made that art? I suppose it’s always an interesting question to ask, assuming you’re not already jumping the gun by answering it yourself. But it struck me as funny, if also a little unfortunate, that the ease of photography today, for artistic or non-artistic purposes, could have made it so difficult to understand what so many people had seen before in those images.
My pretention aside though, the discussion popped into my head almost immediately in reflecting on the photography of Albert Renger-Patzsch, a master of early 20th Century German photography, whose work had a profound impression on New Objectivity in Weimar Germany. Renger-Patzsch, despite having a profound impact on his art, strayed away from descriptions of himself as an artist, instead choosing to classify himself more as a documentarian of things as they were, as a careful examiner into the nature of shape, light and contour. Renger-Patzsch’s work took a meticulous attention to detail, to highlighting shape and form, from flowers and small animals to massive human constructions like train stations or bridges. Like Adams, Renger-Patzsch’s photographs emanate aesthetic clarity, and even as they strive for that detached objectivity, they still bear the undeniable fingerprints of a master at work. Despite the destruction of his archives during WWII, Renger-Patzsch continued to have a profound impact on German photography up until his death in 1966. Somehow today, in a sea of iPhone photos, these seem all the more gorgeous.