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Albert Renger-Patzsch

“To do justice to modern technology’s rigid linear structure, to the lofty gridwork of cranes and bridges, to the dynamism of machines operating at one thousand horsepower—only photography is capable of that. What those who are attached to the “painterly” style regard as photography’s defect, the mechanical reproduction of form—is just what makes it superior to all other means of expression.” — Albert Renger-Patzsch

Others would have gone farther afield, but even the dingy tenements and suburban streets on the city periphery caught Renger-Patzsch's eye. A diverse agglomeration of poster pillar, power line and factory chimney next to the firewall of a building could inspire him to an image—a celebration of austerity. He was even satisfied with a sagging fence outside an isolated house in the Froschlake Development in Dortmund-Marten. Almost all of these pictures were uninhabited, yet they told an eloquent story about the difficult lives of the people who lived under such conditions.

Drama was far from Renger-Patzsch's mind. His Ruhr Valley landscapes were not heroic panoramas of the kind Edward Weston found in California and New Mexico. Tailing piles, a sandpit, or a garden colony near Essen, with a row of smoke-belching factory stacks along the upper margin (1929), sufficed him for a composition. He also sought out "intact" landscapes, devoting photography books to the North Sea Halligen Islands, the Ore Mountains, Lake Möhnsee, and the Rheingau region—and especially to forests and even individual trees. Admittedly the drama of a factory chimney taken from a very low vantage point interested him (Kauper, Viewed from below, 1928), but Renger-Patzsch made no dogma of Constructivism (in the manner of Alexander Rodchenko), preferring to capture industrial plants from a detached middle distance. The images of the two Essen mines Bonifacius (1940—1941) and Katharina (1956) were compelling compositions of cubic masses, framed in daring excerpts. His photographs of pitheads, heaters, Bessemer converters, and trestle bridges were pioneering achievements in the field of modern industrial archaeology.

Renger-Patzsch lent his manufacturing and advertising photographs an intensity far beyond the norm for commercial photography. Jobs for Kaffee Hag, Ruhrglas and Schott inspired him to aesthetically ambitious still lifes. "The charms of photography," in his eyes, lay "in halftones, the division of the plane, and the course of lines." Photographs like Pressing Iron for Shoe Manufacturing and Shoe Lasts in the Fagus Works, Alfeld, both 1926, became icons of the genre, worthy of being placed alongside Weston's Peppers (1930). The retorts for the Schott Glassworks in Jena (1934) possess a virtually celestial transparency. The scaly skin of an adder, the spines of a cactus, not to mention blossoms and plants (Agave americana, 1923), reflected the same dedication to detail. If he had had his own way, Renger-Patzsch would have entitled his 1928 book, Die Welt ist schön 1 (The World is Beautiful), introduced by 20 botanical photographs, simply Things.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan


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