Gil Blank
Misc Fields
Far from being as cold or clinical as a first glance might make them seem to be, Candida Höfer’s photographs reveal in the subtlest of ways that she is in fact the most empathic figure in what has come to be known as the Düsseldorf School, a loosely connected group of German imagemakers that includes Andreas Gursky, Axel Hutte, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. Her contemporaries have each made the most of exceptionally popular artworld careers, but Höfer, older than all of them, has for the most part maintained a conscientious reserve, and has had much less attention paid to her work by audiences in the United States. Aperture’s monograph, coinciding with a major museum retrospective and the first edition of its kind published in English, aims to redress that imbalance, and does so with the same kind of poise intrinsic to the photographer’s own highly refined aesthetic.


Höfer has for the entirety of her thirty-plus working years concentrated on a single motif, well-grounded in the now vastly familiar oeuvre of Bernd and Hilla Becher, her teachers at the famous Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (where classmates Gursky, Hutte, Ruff, and Struth also trained). Though the format of her pictures has evolved ever so slightly over the years, she has for most part concentrated on depicting empty architectural and interior spaces, usually devoid of any immediate human presence. The only traces of inhabitants are in the marks, constructions, and furniture they leave behind as phantom surrogates for lives made ever more distinctly palpable for their physical absence. Bare as the images may seem compositionally, they are likewise totally devoid of maudlin effect or nostalgia, which in no way should be confused with a deficit of feeling. On the contrary: hers is an approach so self-effacing, so reticent to allow for the slightest falsity of tone that inevitably creeps into images more expressive than her own, that it’s easy to underestimate her delicate tone of elegy. She is a silent mourner who knows there is no relief to be had in noisy tears. She is also a photographer of supreme dignity and sober elegance.


There is a parallel quietude at work in the imagery: the silence of Höfer’s visual approach matches the latency of her subjects. There is a nimble intelligence at work here, whispering questions of blistering force. What is it that constitutes our identities, our histories, and the substance of our presence, besides the mere fact of our physical selves? There is a great and woeful decency to Höfer’s undertaking, conscious as it is of historic fragility—bear in mind that the photographer came of age in postwar Germany. She is adamant to testify to the worth intrinsic to the human passage through time, yet unwilling to capitulate to easier sentimentalizing.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Candida Höfer: Architecture of Absence
Published by Aperture 

Originally published in Issue magazine, Number 9, 2006