From the surfaces of sheds to the complexities of the solar system: a beautiful collection of Hans-Christian Schink’s photographs
In his book Terminal Architecture (1998) the critic Martin Pawley, who so enlivened architectural journalism until his death in 2008, suggested that the image of 21st-century architecture was already clear: its defining building would be the bland big shed.
‘These steel- and aluminium-skinned rectangles are the wholesale granaries of consumer society. They combine perfect formal simplicity with a wonderful sophistication − their interiors burst with new technology,’ said Pawley, who apparently welcomed their proliferation.
Such sheds feature prominently in this monograph on the German photographer Hans-Christian Schink, in a series of close-ups of their corrugated metal skins. The images are cropped in such a way that all they present is a broad expanse of colour, like a minimalist monochrome painting, except for a strip of ragged grass at the bottom and a glimpse of sky at the top. This could just be a deft compositional device that saves the photo from complete abstraction, but it also suggests how forgetful these sheds are of their surroundings. Too often they are simply dumped upon the landscape, in the ceaseless triumph of culture over nature. But whether or not these shots are implicitly critical, they show Schink to be meticulous and methodical: an impression that the rest of the book confirms.
It sometimes seems as if every well-established German photographer trained in Düsseldorf with Bernd and Hilla Becher, but Schink took a different route. He was born in what was then East Germany and studied at the Academy of Visual Arts in Leipzig from 1986 to ‘91. Sampling two decades of Schink’s work, this book accompanied his recent retrospective at several German venues, and is as worthwhile as any on such Düsseldorf luminaries as Andreas Gursky (AR March 2012) or Thomas Struth.
Given his GDR background, it is no surprise that among Schink’s subjects is the effect of German reunification. In the last days of the GDR he photographed a number of indoor swimming pools in Leipzig, whose condition was ‘symptomatic of the general neglect’. Soon after reunification it was clear that such neglect had a positive side too, having ensured the survival of buildings that might well have been demolished in the West; and Schink was among the ex-GDR photographers who documented that now-vulnerable heritage − in his case, the industrial architecture of Leipzig, Chemnitz and Dresden.
The change that unification brought is most apparent in Schink’s 1993 series Verkehrsprojekte Deutsche Einheit (Traffic Projects German Unity), his study of new motorway and railway construction. As one of the book’s essayists says: ‘Architecture can be very beautiful, but most of the time it is not. The economic constraints under which these structures were built are manifest.’ Despite a hint of engineering maestro Robert Maillart in the design of one bridge, they are mostly crude and imperious − the more so because of Schink’s low viewpoint, which makes them loom overhead.
Complementing these infrastructure photos is a project from 1997, in which Schink explored several settlements in the Fläming region of Brandenburg. Here the results of reunification are much less obtrusive: a new roof, a fancy porch, or just a coat of coloured render on a modest facade. This is the low-key incremental way in which life has proceeded, and we might only be looking at a change of owner, not of government and ideology.
In common with Gursky and Struth, Schink has travelled widely as his reputation has spread. Like many photographers of his generation, he is drawn to the periphery of towns and cities, but whether in Los Angeles or in Lima, he seldom lapses into cliché. In the Lima photos, for instance, he discovers an eroded pyramid (a pre-Incan survival) at the end of a ramshackle street. One atmospheric series features Japanese villages under snow, the idyll somewhat compromised by overhead wires and cables − the kind of visual crassness that the AR has lamented since the 1930s. This tension between nature and culture persists throughout the book, but the two are reconciled in a photograph of the Turkish town of Uchisar: an intimate fusion of building and landscape in cave-hollowed Cappadocia.
While Schink’s scenes mostly reflect human intervention, there is nonetheless a sense of powerful natural forces at work, especially in shots of the vast Iguaçu waterfalls on the border of Argentina and Brazil. In his brief polemic The Eyes of the Skin (1996), the Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa rightly criticises our ‘ocularcentric’ culture, the dominance of the eye over other senses, but here is an instance where an image engages not just the sense of sight. Brought to the edge of an abyss in Schink’s Iguaçu photos, you almost hear the roar of the water and feel its spray in your face.
In a further series of landscapes, realised in black and white, Schink turns his camera towards the horizon and captures the trajectory of the sun during hour-long exposures: it makes a dark incision in the sky. So at one extreme he photographs the surfaces of sheds, and at the other, the workings of the solar system. Given such disparate subjects, who could say what comes next? We see so many images each day that we absorb them unthinkingly and miss their significance or merit. Schink’s ought to be an exception. Reproduced handsomely in Hatje Cantz’s book, they should be contemplated not consumed.
Author: Ulrike Bestgen (editor)
Publishers: Hatje Cantz Libri