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The Spirit of the Metropolis:

Photography in the collection of the Deutsche Bank New York

One of the floors of the main headquarters of the Deutsche Bank New York is exclusively dedicated to photography. From the early works of Berenice Abbott to the contemporary positions of German photographers such as Andreas Gursky or Thomas Ruff, this part of the New York collection not only documents the ever-changing city image of the American metropolis, but also traces the various ways in which the discipline has emancipated itself as an independent art form on both sides of the Atlantic.


Berenice Abbott, Fish Markets, South Street, 1936
©Commerce Graphic Limited, New York

Collection Deutsche Bank

>> picture gallery I

"Photographing New York means trying to capture the spirit of the metropolis with the delicacy and sensitivity of the photographic emulsion while remaining true to its most important attributes – its hurried pace and its crowded streets, where the past collides with the present. The tempo of the metropolis is not one of infinity, or even of time, but one of the vanishing moment." These are the words the photographer Berenice Abbott used to describe her project Changing New York, and they express a feeling that inspired photographers and artists alike to create entirely new images of the modern big city at the beginning of the 20th century.


Berenice Abbott, Floating Oyster House, ca. 1931
©Commerce Graphic Limited, New York

Collection Deutsche Bank

Early on, American photographers concentrated on the technological innovations in their industrial environment and developed an individual style inspired by European Classic Modernism: skyscrapers, water towers, and power plants appeared alongside grain silos, smokestacks, factories, and piers as characteristic features of the American landscape. Employing distance and carefully chosen perspectives, this new type of photography shied away from any form of individuality and, in its portrayal of the everyday, virtually took on classical qualities.



Berenice Abbott, Floating Oyster House, ca. 1931
©Commerce Graphic Limited, New York

Collection Deutsche Bank

Thus, Andreas Feininger's 1940 photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge not only portrays one of the most popular motifs in New York – its depiction of the wooden promenade over the East River before a modern architectural backdrop summed up the zeitgeist of the time to such a degree that its relevance and power of expression have endured to this day. In their austere construction, Feininger's photographs resemble the clear compositions of his father, Lyonel Feininger, whose famous woodcut Cathedral of 1919 seems like the stylistic model for his son's photograph of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Andreas Feininger, Brooklyn Bridge
ca. 1940
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003
Collection Deutsche Bank
Lyonel Feininger, Kathedrale
1919, Holzschnitt

VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2002


The art collection of the Deutsche Bank New York, founded in 1978 in the office building at 9 West 57th Street, took this contrast between history and the present, tradition and zeitgeist as the basis of its presentation concept. In the hallways, offices, and conference rooms, works by contemporary North American and German art are juxtaposed. One entire floor is dedicated to photography, documenting not only the ever-changing appearance of New York since the nineteen-thirties, but also chronicling the emancipation of this discipline into an autonomous art form. The juxtaposition with German works since the late seventies clearly demonstrates the strong influence American photographers have had on the development of photography in Germany.


Irving Penn, Hell's Angels, San Francisco, 1978
Collection Deutsche Bank

Irving Penn, who made his mark on the aesthetic profile of the fashion magazine Vogue for many years, staged his urban portraits in the manner of classical paintings. Shot in the studio, the black and white photographs possess a cool, luxurious elegance that does just as much stylistic justice to a still life as it does to the group of Hell's Angels he photographed in 1967. Twenty years later, this extreme stylization of subject served Thomas Ruff as a model for his sober color portraits ( interview by Philip Pococ in the Journal of Contemporary Art Online) of young people; together, they comprise a confident document of the zeitgeist. Similar to oversized passport photographs, the individuals depicted are presented to the viewer in utter isolation.


Thomas Ruff, Porträt, 1988
©VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2003

Collection Deutsche Bank


In Germany, the long-prevailing dictate of black and white photography was first broken by the generation of photographers who studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher in Düsseldorf, one of whom was Ruff. Back in the nineteen-fifties, the Bechers had formulated the criteria of objectivity, distance, and timelessness for their documentary series of industrial and residential buildings, which recall the beginnings of American photography. Their photographs always adhere to the same set of conditions: frontal view, undistorted perspective, black and white technique, cloudless sky, diffuse light without shadow, and the absence of people. This exclusion of an expressiveness or photographic self-representation of any kind virtually challenged the subsequent generation of photographers to profess their allegiance to subjective photography.

v.l.n.r.:
Bernd und Hilla Becher, Wohnhaus Siegen/Westfalen (E1), 1987
©Bernd and Hilla Becher, Düsseldorf
Collection Deutsche Bank

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Wohnhaus Kirchen/Sieg (E2), 1987
©Bernd and Hilla Becher, Düsseldorf
Collection Deutsche Bank

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Wohnhaus Bad Godesberg (E3), 1987
©Bernd and Hilla Becher, Düsseldorf
Collection Deutsche Bank


Thus, in his allegorical works, Bernhard Prinz – in a complete departure from the canon of objectivity – deliberately refers to art historical models from the Renaissance and the 19th century. Bathed in mysterious light, the careful staging of his elegant motifs demonstrate parallels to the photographic works of Cindy Sherman, who foregoes allegorical allusion altogether. Instead, in her elaborately prepared images in which she herself appears as her sole model, she focuses on questions of identity, gender roles, and history.


Cindy Sherman, Untitled, 1986
©Metro Pictures, New York

Collection Deutsche Bank

>> picture gallery II

With an eye to global history, Lothar Baumgarten presents another point of concentration in the investigation of the concept of identity. Ever since the seventies, he has been examining the phenomenon of cultural oppression in his photographic works, for instance the oppression of the North and South American tribal cultures at the hands of the Europeans. The implementation of language and writing have come close to becoming a signature of his works, as in Vom Aroma der Namen from 1985.


Lothar Baumgarten, Vom Aroma der Namen, 1985
Collection Deutsche Bank


At the same time as Bernd and Hilla Becher were formulating their position in Germany, Neal Slavin was developing his group compositions in color in the United States. With the photographic work of Feininger, Abbott, and Penn, but also of Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella in mind, Slavin searched for new possibilities of aesthetic expression. Similar in method to the Bechers' documentary works and object studies, he meticulously recorded the history and various features of the singing groups or Fire Department balls in his photographs; as in the work Staten Island Ferry from 1974, he omitted no item of information, from the number of waiting service and passengers present to the travel route and total costs.


Neal Slavin, Staten Island Ferry, 1974
Collection Deutsche Bank

In tandem with an increasing flow of media imagery in the eighties, a transformation in the quality of perception arose and made its mark on photography. Photography's role within art had already changed considerably during the seventies. Along with its autonomous function as an independent art discipline, its usefulness as a documentary device in new fields of art came to fore: performance artists recorded their mixed media events with the camera just as the makers of land art did, for whom the photograph was often the only means available to them for disseminating their work. John Schlesinger, whose works amount to a subversive dismantling of the medium, also reacted to this reevaluation of photography and acceleration in the spread of manipulated media imagery. Taken from film sequences and assembled together in new contexts, his images deliberately subvert photography's traditional recording function. Out of a resignation in the face of the image, Schlesinger developed abstract and psychologically charged photographs that open up surprisingly new areas of perception to the viewer.


John Schlesinger, Untitled, 1989
©John Schlesinger, Philadelphia

Collection Deutsche Bank

In order to hone our own powers of perception, it helps to determine whether certain motifs have meaning for us alone or if they possess a more general validity. A photograph always reveals a certain manner of perception: that of the photographer. Seeing the world with the eyes of another can be an enriching experience if it doesn't rob the viewer of his or her own way of seeing. For this reason, the motto of the catalogue to the New York art collection, Between Tradition and Zeitgeist, reminds us to adapt our view to the changing time.

Maria Morais