Euro Check

Petra Benteler reviews trends in European photography

Contemporary European pho­tography is not only the result of artistic influences; World War II had effects on the direction and rate of its development. Though many historical achievements in photography came from Europe, its development was cru­cially hindered in much of Europe by the National Socialism of the thirties. It was during this era that American pho­tography began to florish.

Art photography was strong in all parts of Europe before the war, and after the war there was a "rediscovery" of photography as an art form. In the 50's, the development mainly took place in the fields of photojournalism and advertising. There were several small groups (like Fotoform of Ger­many), experimenting with photography at this time.

At the beginning of the sixties, pop-artists and performance artists had used photography for documentation. A new direction in art emerged in America at the end of the 60s - "conceptual art" — and from this developed concept-photography in Europe. The concept-artists undertook photography to examine the media thematically. Also by the end of the 60s came the cul­mination of the long-term build-up of artists who were experimenting with photography on a technical basis.

Generally, these were the two main connections, aside from commissioned photography, between photography and art - one coming from the fine arts and the other from the technical field of photography. At this time these lines of communation never met.

The 70’s were the decade of complete change for photography in Europe. As a result of a major war, there was almost as entire generation of photog­raphers missing. Therefore, young photographers in Europe, who were looking for new manners of expression, sought role-models among photogra­phers in America, where a generation of workers already represented an ex­pansive spectrum of artistic starting points.

It took several years for the Euro­pean photographers to find a new self-assurance, though by now European photography has become an established entity and has developed its own dy­namic vision and character. Though the concept of photography as an art form had been in existence since the origin of photography, this new generation conceived a modern-day terminology for it - author photography - intended to indicate a genre concerned with the personal vision of the author, rather than assigned work.

While we will not find national "indi­vidualities" in European photography, certain characteristics are prominent in some countries. In Germany, for exam­ple, work is presented much more sys­tematically than in Spain; concept photography is much stronger in Poland and Czechoslavakia than in Greece; color photography is more prominent in Italy than in Great Britain. These fac­tors do not, however, create definitions by which to categorize German, Span­ish, or Polish photography.

Eastern Europe, of course, has no infra-structure of galleries, schools for photography or independent communications organizations comparable with those of the West. Photography there is primarily a tool of the government. It is, therefore, a more suppressed form of art — with limited means of support. Many of the art-photographers of east­ern Europe have other unrelated oc­cupations in order to exist. Western Europe, having a strong and supportive infra-structure, developed the photo-art market. Briefly, here are some of the trends seen there:

  • The young generation of German photographers was looking toward the Amer­ican photo scene for creative guidelines in the early seventies, but soon developed its own style and created new directions that ultimately influenced the development of photography in other European countries. Today in West Germany fine art photog­raphy is prominent, the categories of strong development being documentary, straight, fantastic and concept photography.
  • The photography of Austria and Switzerland is going through a fundamental change. Both are trying to break away from the old traditional forms, to cross the borders of the media and to include other media. This is typical not only of Austria and Switzerland, but of all European countries. They are try­ing to overcome the classical format, direc­ting focus to series, sequences, compositions and installations.
  • Photography was invented in France, and since then France has had many famous pho­tographers with strong inclinations toward photojournalism. Since the seventies there has been an evolution of a type of photog­rapher - the picture-maker — who does not see himself exclusively as a photographer, but uses photography as a manner of expression.
  • Most of the young photographers in Italy today prefer working with color, a prefer­ence which can be dated from 1980 and 1981. Though there are recognizable distinc­tions between individual artists, there is an overall tendency to dispense with the tradi­tional harmony rules of primary and secon­dary color compositions. Photographers experiment with new techniques to find their own palette of colors, without being tied to the use of color in customary or realistic ways, some photographers using color in a brutal and deliberately trashy way to declare their independence from tradi­tional practices.
  • After the death of Franco in 1975, a fun­damental change occurred not only in the Spanish political environment, but also in the cultural and artistic spheres. Today we can find a strong leaning toward documen­tary photography, the origin of its influence coming from the American and German documentarists. Though they attempt to be absolutely neutral, the result is actually sub­jective. The term "Mediterranean temper" suggests the emotionality of the people, and this mentality could be the reason behind the fact that concept-photography never really blossomed in Spain. Their mentality yearns more for poetry and sensuousness than for rigid experimentation.
  • British photography appears very vital and takes many forms. There is an expan­sive movement away from the conventional framework. "While social documentary and documentary photography continue to be of major importance in Britain today, there is a tendency among some of the younger gen­eration to work in a more experimental, imaginative way. Rather than depict and document the outside world, they have developed certain strategies of estrangement whereby the viewer is disturbed both visual­ly and intellectually" (Rupert Martin).