If photographs of steelworks, coalbunkers and gas plants might not at first seem to inspire, the superbly melancholy images by the Düsseldorf School of Photography, on show at Ben Brown Fine Arts in Mayfair from Friday September 4, will change your mind. Where William Blake marked the beginning of the dark satanic mills, these photographs document their slow demise. They also highlight their individual personalities, from the rusting cranes of a steelworks that appear like some gargantuan arachnid to the gourd-like shapes of lime kilns.
The most haunting of these photographs are by Bernd and Hilla Becher, who in the 1960s and 1970s spearheaded a revival of the art of the neue sachlichkeit (or new objectivity) movement that had prevailed in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s and was characterised by its lack of sentimentality. Always incorporating overcast skies to minimise shadows, they capture the sculptural majesty of cooling towers and silos.
The Bechers taught a stable of pupils at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf who have risen to be major photographers – including Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff, Elger Esser and Thomas Struth. Each of the Becher’s superb silver prints cost in the region of €22,000 (such as Water Tower, Broadway and Broome Street, 1978, second picture), while most of their pupils command even higher prices – a photo by Struth of a troupe of tourists milling around Velázquez’s Las Meninas in the Prado is priced at approximately €265,000, Gursky’s aerial shots of a Love Parade, where a mass of human beings bisects a cluster of trees in a park, is priced at €400,000, and images of the Thai islands used as the setting for James Bond films are €675,000.
A sense of immensity distinguishes both Höfer’s ethereal portrait (£58,000, first picture) of the towering gothic nave of the church of the Batalha Monastery in Portugal and Hütte’s Houston, Rice, USA (third picture), on sale for €37,000, which juxtaposes black tower blocks against a night sky. The bridge at Montrond-les-Bains in France (€25,000), photographed by Esser in 2012, looks almost like one of Cotman’s watercolours, it is so yellowed and beautifully faded.
These documentations of architecture and architectural landscapes are complemented by Thomas Demand’s Hole (2013), being sold for €90,000. The artist is known for creating life-sized rooms and buildings, which he then photographs, and this neatly geometric piece is a comment on the workings of the oil industry – and one of the most richly complex images in this show.