‘The kind of photography that translates our dreams into inspiring and indelible images’: 25 years of CAMERA WORK
The Berlin photo gallery CAMERA WORK is celebrating its 25th anniversary with an exhibition curated by retired deputy chairman and now consultant at Christie’s Philippe Garner, who talks to us about his favourite images and the artists who made them
When CAMERA WORK director Ute Hartjen invited photography expert Philippe Garner to curate the Berlin gallery’s 25th anniversary exhibition, the specialist assumed there would be some restrictions on what he could show. ‘In fact, they gave me carte blanche, so I chose images that had been part of my life, as well as being emblematic of CAMERA WORK’s agenda,’ he says.
However, a busy schedule and the lingering limitations of lockdown travel meant the curation was, it’s fair to say, unorthodox. ‘I was sent scaled-down elevations of the galleries and the pictures in their frames, and I did it the old-fashioned way, with scissors and paste on the sitting room floor,’ he explains. ‘When I finally arrived in Berlin, I found they had followed my instructions to the millimetre. I was delighted.’
Named after the journal established by Alfred Stieglitz in 1903, CAMERA WORK was set up in 1997 in an old coach house discovered by Garner’s friend, the photographer Helmut Newton. Over the years it has represented many pioneering photographers, including Hans Feurer, Irving Penn, Peter Lindbergh and Herb Ritts.
‘My relationship with the gallery goes back to its foundations,’ says Garner, ‘we share a commitment to great magazine photography — the kind of photography that translates our dreams and ideals into inspiring and indelible images.’
The exhibition is divided into black-and-white photographs on the ground floor, and colour photography on the first floor. ‘I quickly realised that combining colour with black-and-white photography was like trying to mix oil and water, so I decided not to force it,’ says the curator, who used the darker upstairs galleries to bring out the richness of colour in photographs by William Eggleston, Feurer and Robert Polidori.
As one of the world’s leading authorities on photography, Garner has published essays on Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Guy Bourdin, Newton, Penn and numerous others, but he still says he has ‘a lot to learn’ about the medium. ‘Photography is a huge field, even though its history is far shorter than that of painting. There are many highways and byways — and all are fascinating.’
Below, Philippe Garner talks us through some of his highlights of the exhibition.
Hans Feurer, Ingmari Johansson, Queen magazine, London, 1969
PG: ‘This photograph was from a cover shoot for Queen magazine in 1969 and I remember buying it straight from the newsstand, so you can imagine my delight when I discovered it among CAMERA WORK’s archives.
‘My formative years were in the 1950s and 60s, a period of great editorial photography. Hans Feurer began his career as a graphic artist and art director. He had a wonderful graphic eye but his problem was finding photographers talented enough to execute what he had in mind. In the end he just decided to do it himself. His pictures are unmistakably Hans Feurer.
‘This is characteristic of his 1960s work, where the graphic design is key. He is best-known for using a long lens and soft daylight with a very shallow depth of field, allowing his subject to stand out sharply against the melting colours of the background.’
William Eggleston, from ‘Los Alamos’ and ‘Dust Bells’, Volume II
PG: ‘There was a time when colour was frowned upon by curators and collectors and branded as commercial. William Eggleston broke that mindset. He is a great colourist. His photographs are naturalistic and undramatic but they always hit the painterly note. He doesn’t necessarily bother to straighten his horizon line, he will crop into things — it will all seem random, and yet there is nothing extraneous in the picture frame.
‘In Eugen Herrigel’s 1948 book of philosophy, Zen in the Art of Archery, he says that to reach the target you must become the bow and become the arrow, and then the arrow will find its place. I have that sense with Eggleston. He is out there in the zone and the question is, does he find the picture or does the picture find him?
‘I’ve met Eggleston on two or three occasions. The most memorable was when I sat next to him at a dinner in his honour. He doesn’t do conversation, so I decided not to put any pressure on him and just to go with it. He would throw out half a line and I would respond, and eventually we got into the Eggleston zone. It was a very special night and when I got back to my hotel room I immediately wrote up every detail so as not to forget it.’
Robert Polidori, Cadre Vide, Chateau de Versailles, 1985
PG: ‘Robert Polidori’s work is very moving, it is about the passage of time. He photographs interiors that have been silent witnesses to history. His pictures are filled with a heavy melancholy of lives lived but now gone — the ghosts of the past. His most famous photographs are of Havana in Cuba, and they convey that atmosphere intensely.
‘I see his work as part of a long tradition that dates back to the early 19th-century poets and their romance of ruins. This picture is from the Palace of Versailles series, for which he photographed many of the rooms the public never get to see. I love places that resonate with something of their past. I share that with Polidori.’
Leni Riefenstahl, The Discus Thrower, 1936
PG: ‘This is a classical nude image, with all that that implies, photographed at an extraordinary moment in history: the Berlin Olympics in 1936. We all know the games were supposed to be a great showcase for Hitler and his Fascist regime, and of his fury when the African-American sprinter Jesse Owens won the 100 metres. There is so much history in that single image.
‘I had the privilege of meeting Leni Riefenstahl at a gallery in Berlin in 2002. She was very slight, like a sparrow, but held my arm with an incredible vice-like grip. As we walked around the exhibition we came to one of her photographs. She stood back and sighed, “Ah! Leni!”, as if she was admiring the genius of someone else entirely.’
Bettina Rheims, from the ‘Gender Studies’ series
PG: ‘I have known Bettina Rheims for many years; she is a bundle of energy and dynamism. Gender identity is centre stage today and Bettina was ahead of the curve when she first exhibited these images back in 2011. She consistently draws out the sensuality of her models.
‘The most fascinating thing about any photographer is to wonder to what extent they are coaxing something out of their sitter, and to what extent they are projecting themselves onto the subject. These two portraits are very recognisably Bettina. The author is right there in the frame.’
Peter Beard’s exhibition at CAMERA WORK, 1998
PG: ‘Peter Beard had an exhibition at CAMERA WORK in 1998. He was such a crazy, romantic figure. I had a wonderful evening talking to him about his work and his life and realised how fatalistic he was about the future of the planet. He saw we were heading for disaster. His pictures are not crusading pictures; he’s simply saying, “You are f***ing up the planet, and here’s the evidence.” They are very poignant.
‘He had a lovely streak of idiosyncrasy — a spontaneous man who pursued his desires and ambitions with a singular focus. He was not a photographer in the conventional sense, or an artist in the conventional sense. He had a vision, and found this hybrid way of making his mark.’
Herb Ritts, Bruce Springsteen, 1992
PG: ‘I am a huge Bruce Springsteen fan, and this is a very striking portrait of him. It is almost as if he is playing a role in a Herb Ritts film because there is so much of the photographer in it.
‘Ritts wanted to make beautiful artefacts and his prints are very seductive. They tend to be in slightly warm tones and he is mostly associated with that very strong Californian light, but here Springsteen is photographed against a dark backdrop, which creates a different kind of drama. Ritts is using available light, and I like that you can see the curtain. It has a tactile dimension. It reminds you of the artifice of making a celebrity portrait.’
CAMERA WORK’S anniversary exhibition, 25 Years CAMERA WORK, is on view in Berlin until 1 October 2022