A Review of Albert Renger-Patzsch: Photographer of Objectivity. Ann and Juergen Wilde and Weski, Thomas, eds. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1998. 176 pp. (113 plates).
German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch insisted that his photography was merely a matter of cataloguing of material phenomena, and that it represented a "new objectivity" (Neue Sachlichkeit). He also insisted that he was simply a "recorder" of said objects.
That might strike people as odd, in this age when pretentious "post-modernists" defile Christ in urine, or actually sell cans of their own excrement to the Museum of Modern Art for tens of thousands of dollars, when anything and everything qualifies to be deemed as art, without any formal — or toilet — training necessary. Yet, Renger-Patzsch disdained the moniker of "artist" that his enthusiasts tried to make stick to him. (I wonder if he would still have that attitude with all the literal crap that poses as art today).
Renger-Patzsch's photographs weren't merely objective, but they were pure idealism, for he always arranged or composed the subjects of his photographs to be seen in their best light. Whether it was simple pictures of common items, such as hand trowels, shoe trees or foliage, his photographs had a sensuous quality to them that makes the viewer want to reach into his photographs to touch them.
He had a gift for making the commonplace beautiful and for creating gorgeous landscapes out of factory works and basalt mines. His industrial prints are contemporaneous with any of Charles Scheeler's or Margaret Bourke-White's, but bear a much subtler imprint; There is a quiet quality to his prints, in which man is either alone and isolated or conspicuously absent (as with his photographs of houses outside of Essen and Dortmund), but the handiwork of man is ever-present.
His photographs are very strong, nonetheless, very masculine. He had a stylised eye that cut extraneous subject matter out of his images the way a butcher slices fat away from a side of bacon. Yet, the beautiful, transparent delicateness of his photographs of glass beakers from the Schott Glassworks in Jena speak with a gentle, feminine voice and his photographs of enamel bowls or a child's Pelikan paintbox have a Japanese feel to them, in their iconic and minimalistic compositions.
It is sad to say that even most American enthusiasts of fine-arts photography have never heard of Albert Renger-Patzsch. This volume, nonetheless, contains the best of his work and makes a strong argument for including him in the pantheon of the twentieth century's greatest photographers.