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Photographs from Germany by Wilhelm Schürmann on view in new exhibition at Sprengel Museum
Wilhelm Schürmann, Hochstadenring, Bonn, 1979. Silbergelatine, vintage print, 30,4 x 39,5 cm (Blattmaß), 22,5 x 28,2 cm (Bildmaß). Sammlung Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung© Wilhelm Schürmann.

HANOVER.- West Germany in the latter half of the 1970s can perhaps be imagined as follows: at its western border, more or less in the region where Wilhelm Schürmann photographed, the European idea (customs-free passage had already introduced here in 1951/52 with the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community) underwent one of its earliest crises after the end of the economic miracle. At the eastern border of the republic, Bruno Winter and Robert Lander– the protagonists of Wim Wenders’s film Im Lauf der Zeit [Kings of the Road] (1976/77) –rove like vagabonds from cinema to cinema along the Inner German Border in search of a path into the future, recapitulating the American colonialisation of their subconscious. Between these borders, in the middle, the so-called German Autumn of 1977 – the time of the RAF kidnapping and murder of Hanns-Martin Schleyer and the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 181 – pulsates as heavy as lead.

Photography was then entrusted to a generation that, like Winter and Lander, was seeking to free itself from the shackles of recent German history, that was wrestling with a new beginning. The stations of its evolution included Nouvelle Vague cinema and the debates concerning the aspects of media and cultural criticism in concept art. Its photographic heroes were Eugène Atget, Diane Arbus, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch. Whether in Spectrum Photogalerie (1972–1991), in the Galerie Lichttropfen (Schürmann & Kicken, Aachen, 1974–1979), in the Galerie Wilde (1972–1985) or at documenta 6 (1977) – photography defined itself for the most part with reference to the American brand of poetical systematists of the everyday dating from the first decades of the 20th century. It was taught most consequentially – and the ultimate ramifications are as yet still unforeseeable – by Bernd Becher, with the support of Hilla Becher, from 1976 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. That same year Michael Schmidt opened a workshop for photography at the Kreuzberg Adult Education School that acted as an intermediary with the United States. Two years later he published the book Berlin-Wedding (Berlin 1978). Heinrich Riebesehl’s Agrarlandschaften [Agricultural Landscapes] (Bremen 1979) appeared shortly thereafter, and Wilhelm Schürmann similarly brought a photographic monograph before the public (Wilhelm Schürmann, Fotografien, Cologne, 1979). They are the first “auteur” publications of post-war German photography.

Schürmann was one of the central personalities in these developments, not least in his role as co-curator of the In Deutschland. Aspekte zeitgenössischer Dokumentarfotografie [In Germany. Aspects of Contemporary Documentary Photography] exhibition at the Rheinisches Landesmuseum Bonn (1979, together with Klaus Honnef). But he was also a dissenter to a certain extent: Schürmann took strictly composed, stage-like photographs depicting how things actually were in his immediate surroundings, in cities and on their outskirts. His works are systematised according to thematic references, and as his recently published book Wegweiser zum Glück, Bilder einer Straße 1979-1981 [Road Map to Happiness: Pictures of a Street 1979-1981] (Cologne, 2012) again demonstrates, he often worked through in them in an extremely complex manner. But each picture is more an individual photograph than part of a serial arrangement: every situation demands an individually developed compositional solution. The sensuous intellectual pleasure taken in the subtle codes and messages of the object constellations sets limits to serial and systematising methodologies.

The selection of photographs presented in this exhibition shows Germany as an impassive region between crisis and crisis, as a ongoing provisional arrangement woven out of estates of terraced houses, industrial structures with a sprinkling of modernist elements, backyards, garages, church towers, power supply lines, highways and railway station situations. But these temporary arrangements nevertheless still possess subtle remnants of anarchistic possibilities: they are potential docking stations and options for the futures.

Wilhelm Schürmann, born in Dortmund in 1946, has been taking photographs since he was 16-years-old. He studied chemistry, established the Galerie Lichttropfen with Rudolf Kicken, left it in 1977 and taught art photography from 1981 to 2010 at the University of Applied Sciences in Aachen. An initial encounter with Martin Kippenberger in 1982 laid the foundation for Gaby und Wilhelm Schürmann’s activities as collectors: his passion remains object constellations.

Wilhelm Schürmann’s work as a photographer can be rediscovered again and again.

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