2) With this attitude he reacted against the picturesque romanticism of so-called `artistic’ photography, profiling himself as one of the most influential champions of the New Objectivity in photography. In addition, Renger-Patzsch made his name as a photographer of technology and industry, industrial products and landscapes, with books of photos such as Lübeck (1928), Die Welt ist schön (1928) and Wegweisung der Technik (1928). In this way he became one of the main exponents of the enthusiasm for technology which was so characteristic of the twenties. We owe several of his best-known photographs to commissions from the Zündapp works in Nuremberg, the Schott glass factory in Jena, the Kaffee-Handels AG in Bremen and the Fagus factory in Alfeld.
Nevertheless, Renger-Patzsch carried out his largest and most comprehensive industrial assignment in the fifties and sixties. Over a period of almost sixteen years he documented in 1698 photographs production at the Schubert and Salzer spinning equipment factory in Ingolstadt (Southern Germany). However, Renger-Patzsch never published this work. The photographs led a hidden existence, merely serving as documentary material for the clients. It was not until 1990 – a quarter of a century after the photographer’s death – that the Ingolstadt photographs came to the notice of photographic and art historians.
One might think, precisely because he was convinced of the documentary mission of photography, that Renger-Patzsch was predestined for commissioned industrial photography. After all, that is where, in the first instance, impartial information, shaped by the matter-of-fact eye of the photographer can be expected. But the fact that documentation can never be entirely impartial, but always an interpretation, was already realized by the art historian Carl Georg Heise in 1928. He was one of the photographer’s principal sponsors and a personal friend, who expressed this view in his preface to Die Welt ist schön (The world is beautiful) – Renger-Patzsch’s best-known book: `Photographs of architecture should serve to represent and interpret buildings. Far more than with photography of nature, of flowers, animals or landscapes, the photographer should therefore take into account the artistic autonomy of the object.’3) What has been said with respect to Renger-Patzsch’s architectural photography also applies to his assignment at Ingolstadt. Here, of course, he also had to bear in mind the clients’ wish to have an effect: the factory and its products had to be presented favourably with a view to sales.
The most prominent examples of `staged’ shots of this type are found among the photographs of workshops full of rows of machines which Renger-Patzsch often portrayed as perfect, highly-rationalized spaces, as in the montage of a row of machines. The precise, uniform sharpness of depth and the static fixation of the gaze through the photographic – single-lens – objective, present the machines as artificial, idealized volumes. Clearly Renger-Patzsch was only able to achieve such an `elevated’ presentation of the plant owing to the regular arrangement of the machines in the building.
He was able to emphasize even more the uniformity of mass production in the photograph of the spindles of a ring spinning machine. By means of the short, `staccato’ succession of identical forms and the strong perspective foreshortening, the spindles fuse, as it were, optically into one linear pattern, as happens with objects which are moving very fast. The fusion of the forms makes a dynamic impression and would seem to confirm that the complicated mechanical operations form a harmonious, perfectly-functioning system. The compelling way in which Renger-Patzsch depicts industrial production is strongly evocative of the enthusiasm for technology which generally characterized photography in the twenties and thirties. In the book Wegweisung der Technik (Directions of technology – 1928)4) Rudolf Schwarz wrote, together with a critical article on the `neue Zeitform Serie’, short commentaries to Renger-Patzsch’s photographs, not so much describing the images as proclaiming in programmatical, slogan-like phrases the prevailing views on mass production. Beside the photograph of the rail system of a cableway (Laufschiene einer Seilbahn) Schwarz writes: `The breaking up of a mechanical, uniform movement into rhythmical repetition’ and beside the row of cranes in Kranreihe in einem Deutschen Ostseehafen: `The individual technical construction elevated by repetition to an expression of energy and force.’5) Strangely enough, Rudolf Schwartz# texts are equally applicable to the Ingolstadt photographs; in fact they seem even more appropriate for this late work than for his early photography.
Although here Renger-Patzsch continued a form dating from the twenties, in other work his representation of space is emphatically perspective (of which photographers in the twenties were actually critical). In his widely-read book Es kommt der neue Fotograf (The new photographer is coming), Werner Graf fumed: `Oh, those renaissance painters! They caused the strangest confusion among contemporary photographers! Their theory of perspective! Of course, we have nothing against exact, straightforward perspective as used here (except perhaps that it is rather boring). But it is not a hard and fast rule. After all, we do not always march along the street with our eyes focused straight ahead.’6)
With his `eyes focused straight ahead’, Renger-Patzsch `staged’ photographs of factories full of machines in the fifties. For instance, he photographed a spinning mill for which his client had supplied the machinery. In order to provide the widest possible panorama of the rows of machines, Renger-Patzsch left the foreground empty, framed by two narrow pillars as if it were a stage. The photographer used the scope of the space to play with symmetry, linking the whole with parallel constructions in the visual composition. The depth of the area is emphasized because the concomitant vanishing lines suggest that the pillars have gradually shrunk in size, in thesame way as the roof would seem to have.
The parallel with the perspective of the early Italian renaissance is fairly obvious, since there are striking similarities, not only in form but also in significance. It is a known fact that the central, symmetrical representation of space was more than just a new method of rational construction. It was also a `formula of pathos’, used as a decor for significant actions which had previously taken place against a background of gold.
Renger-Patzsch also used this space as a metaphor with which to express a higher value. The photographs clearly demonstrate that, also in the genre of industrial photography, visual and spatial formulas live on which derive their effect from the fact that they are embedded in our `collective visual memory’. The vanishing lines of the rows of machines have the same effect as the perspective representations of architecture in painting – the modern factory acquires an almost magical aura. This is by no means intended as an `impartial’ representation of the machines, because they disappear in the vanishing lines, nor does this type of direction facilitate the study of details, it actually hinders it. The principal of linear-perspective representation, with the visual, aesthetic fascination it conveys, becomes an independent entity as the image of a `fabrica ideale’.
There is another aspect which contributes to the idealization of the factories: the absence of people. By `banning’ people, the space is freed from its everyday function and is seen in an `ideal situation’. In an article on industrial photography Jörg Boström compares photos of empty factories with pictures of churches, pinpointing parallel intentions: `it is a matter of worship, authority, the claim to eternity, not of daily life, work or space, it is a matter of absent deities not present human beings, of representation not of function.’7)
Renger-Patzsch’s approach to photographing a factory roof was quite different. He was no longer interested in the perspectively perfect space, but the trellis work of the roofing which he shows from below, slightly diagonally. We encounter a similar approach in a workshop, portrayed from a bird’s-eye view. The wide view and the uniform, all-embracing sharpness of the photograph are reminiscent of the work of Andreas Gursky, a photographer from Düsseldorf, who produces huge colour photos of people and spaces which he interweaves into a network, giving the overall picture a cobweb-like structure.
Sometimes Renger-Patzsch does not take the photos from a distance, but from close by, opting for a direct confrontation, as in the photo of a drive mechanism which was taken parallel to the plane of vision and completely fills it. Technically a shot like this has the advantage of being clear and comprehensive. Just as with an elevation, the dimensions and the functional relationships are clear at a glance. In addition, the frontal view underlines the iconic aspect of this `wheeled relief’ which presents itself to the spectator as a stela in its shrine. However, faced with `cogwheels’ who does not think of the Constructivist and Dadaist variations on this theme in 20th century art: all those paintings and `machinery objects’ containing cogwheels – stylized as icons of the industrial age or ridiculed somewhat, as a grotesque metaphor. The attraction of this technological icon for Renger-Patzsch, however, was its matter-of-fact, though no less amazing concrete presence – a `reality’ which could be rediscovered beneath the cover of a gearbox. The classical period of the `cogwheel-icons’ ended in the sixties with Tingueley’s hilarious objects.
Not long afterwards Renger-Patzsch and more especially his `new objectivity’ industrial photography was to inspire the husband-and-wife photography team Bernd and Hilla Becher, who, in turn, gathered a following. The Bechers also took `realities’ from industry and yet for them factory buildings were far more than historical monuments or documents from the past; isolated from their original context they became the `anonymous sculptures’ of our industrial society.
If we examine these examples of Renger-Patzsch#s industrial photography and observe how the documentary and iconic elements of this later work are interwoven in changing combinations, it will be clear that these are no mere documents of the history of technology. Admittedly, the photographer never explained the aesthetic principles which he pursued when he carried out his Ingolstadt assignment, because he primarily felt he was subservient to the object. But since we are now further on in time, aesthetic principles and associations are coming to light which go beyond the bounds of industrial photography, giving Renger-Patzsch’s Ingolstadt series a place in the visual culture of the twentieth century.