Our "virtual" age. Globalization has led us to believe that we are free to go wherever we want around the globe whenever we feel like going. Yet as soon as we arrive, we find our movements circumscribed. An airport is a vivid example of the drastic restrictions we gladly accept in the name of mobility and safety. We find it normal these days to travel within the tight confines of security walls and fences. As our sense of the possible dangers in our world grows, a constantly swelling stream of ever more efficient security measures follows in its wake. Security, however, implies exclusion. Only those who are authorized are allowed to enter "dangerous" areas, and only if they are properly prepared for it. The safer the society, the more efficient its security measures. And the more they intrude into the individual sphere. These mechanisms necessarily limit the ability of artists to directly study the contemporary world. It has become taboo to photograph people without their consent. Photographers are no longer able to set up their tripods wherever they like. Industrial photography of the kind practiced in the 20s of the last century by the pioneering photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch is practically nonexistent today. Post-9/11, security rules and regulations drastically limit the choice of subject for today's artists. This limited access to their own present day is compensated for through virtuality. Contemporary art photographers prefer to take existing images and manipulate them digitally. Their virtual visual worlds act as substitutes for those parts of reality which have become unreachable or intolerable to us. Art as a whole – photography, film, video – plays a central role in this travesty. Today, producing new, realistic photographs has become almost an exotic venture.
Reality: When the international cement manufacturer Holcim approached Marco Grob and the photographer duo Hiepler, Brunier with the commission for this book, they provided a temporary respite from the mechanisms described above – and an opportunity to push contemporary photography out of its virtual playground back to the realities of the working world. As part of its centennial celebrations, the management of Holcim offered these three photographers an opportunity otherwise exceedingly rare in our day and age. They were given free access to all the company's quarries, cement and concrete plants on all five continents. The company's intention was to thank its over 80,000 employees around the world with a publication of photographs. Grob was asked to shoot portraits of working people, with only his own subjective criteria as a guide; Hiepler, Brunier were given the same freedom to photograph the industrial plants and equipment. By consciously not imposing any major conditions and guaranteeing the artists that it would not exert any direct influence on the choice of pictures for the book and exhibitions, the firm provided the necessary prerequisites for a complex artistic project. The photographers were guaranteed freedom of movement. The only conditions had to do with their personal safety: they were required to wear the same helmets and special shoes as all other employees of the various plants. Grob's goal was to shoot portraits of individuals he felt gave a good impression of the atmosphere at the location and at the same time revealed something of themselves. He was completely free to choose – as long as the people he invited to a photo session agreed, they could be included in the series. At the cement and concrete plants, as well as the quarries where the raw materials are mined, David Hiepler and Fritz Brunier enjoyed the same freedom to choose their shots as they saw fit. The resulting exhibition and book contain vivid portrayals of workers who perform identical tasks under identical working conditions in almost all regions of the world, as well as the places where they do it. Each is shown in isolation: the people without their work, the places of work without their people.
Objectivity: Both commissions were executed using the same basic "language". This agreement on photographic principles ultimately allows us to make a common statement about the artistic project "Holcim workplace". What is it that unites Grob's portraits with the industrial photography of Hiepler, Brunier? It is the vision of professional photographers who have mastered their metier and the state of their art. All of them have worked for clients in advertizing, fashion, architecture and the media. Their images are subject-oriented, decidedly not art for art's sake. For them, photography is a question of using today's best equipment to make as precise a record of reality as possible. Grob, the portrait photographer, takes hand-held pictures using the newest Hasselblad; Hiepler, Brunier use a custom-made camera mounted on a tripod, one which has been built to their specifications and which has special functions not found in commercially available architectural cameras. With a resolution of 60 million pixels, both Grob and Hiepler, Brunier produce color images of enormous precision. These are then converted to black and white. Slightly influencing the result is allowed, and is sometimes done by Hiepler, Brunier to intensify certain moods. Subsequent manipulation to change the form of the image is taboo for both Hiepler, Brunier and Grob. The only exception is made in the industrial shots where random, narrative elements like birds on the horizon are retouched.
Precision: An essential formal parallel between the work of these three photographers is the precision they attain in their portrayals of reality. Grob's faces, his half and full figures, are almost magical in their precisely depicted reality. Anything that might add atmosphere, anything that might alter the image in any way, is left out. No speck of dust, not even a waft of air, comes between the object and the eyes of its beholder. Every detail appears in perfect clarity. The shot is a conglomerate of smaller, magnified pictures arranged perfectly next to each other, providing us with an image which otherwise could not be apprehended by the naked eye. Our eyes can only ever really focus on a part of what lies before them, never the whole. The same can be said of Hiepler, Brunier's "industrial scapes". Both the portraits and the industrial images reproduce reality in a way we ourselves could never see in one glance. This enhanced reality has a touch of the unreal. It demands an act of reorientation. As if we are suddenly bombarded with all the frequencies which normally lie outside our capacity to hear. Visual conventions are suspended. This is the elemental experience which these pictures are able to provide: the experience of suddenly seeing "different things" in a "different" way.
Crystal: No two people look alike, no two people have the same fingerprints. In the same way, no two people ever see exactly the same thing. Visual conventions, however, lead us to believe the opposite. The dominance of pictorialism in contemporary photography, and above all the fact that many photographers these days experiment with out-of-focus effects, push questions of perception into the background and trick us into thinking we are sharing a common experience. Subjective, atmospheric images portray a world in the aggregate state of a soft ice cream. When colors are blurred, when sharp contours dissolve in a dim light, then I am prone to the illusion of living in a world of perfect harmony and accord. Grob, Brunier and Hiepler represent the most powerful form of opposition to every kind of illusory pictorialism. They show us the world in the aggregate state of rock crystal. When every detail appears in perfect clarity, when light splits on sharp edges, then our perception becomes a labyrinth of infinitesimal pieces of visual information. This subdivision of visual information cannot be reduced to viewing conventions – it demands a "primary seeing". This is as true for a screw head on a pipeline in a picture from Hiepler, Brunier as it is for one of Grob's faces, appearing before us like a planet upon whose surface we can perceive an endless series of tiny apparitions. Light reflecting on a mole of skin thus becomes a microcosm, like a crater of the moon seen through a telescope, with no formula to describe what this is like.
Existence: This is not to say that Grob is primarily interested in the "surfaces" of his models. His goal is to be able to "read" faces. His photograph should "open" a face like a book. Not every face is amenable to this kind of openness. Some remain masks. Grob therefore differentiates between faces which resemble single pages and those which resemble a whole volume. As he puts it: "You see a page or have a book."(1) What I personally experience time and again when talking to photographers is how they can see more than I can. Grob is able to hold a conversation with an individual without seeming to concentrate on him or her and yet register details which would never enter the consciousness of an ordinary observer. This heightened sense of visual perception that Grob possesses was once quite succinctly described by the Swiss photographer Balthasar Burkhard when he said: "I can see what others can't."(2) For example, that the tip of a worker's finger is missing as a result of an old injury. Or that a certain person's personality can be grasped solely through the position of the body, making it possible to shoot a truthful portrait while the person is wearing a safety suit and goggles. Because the artistic interest of this obsessive type of photographer focuses precisely on these "blind spots", the portraits give us the feeling of actually seeing a face for the first time. Grob has his own way of working. In contrast to the classic masters of the genre like Robert Mapplethorpe and Richard Avedon, he does not pose his models. Once he has chosen the person whose portrait he would like to shoot, everything happens very quickly. The people are invited into the office where Grob has set up his studio: nothing more than a portable white screen, two spotlights and a video camera on a tripod. The models are asked to give their permission in writing, write their name on a white piece of paper and state both name and occupation into the video camera. Grob then instantly switches from video to the still camera, which he holds in his hand. Using his free hand he indicates a body position and guides the model's gaze to the camera, asking him or her to stay still for a moment. Since he begins shooting without waiting for them to settle, they are really always in movement. They have no time to assume a formal pose. In ten minutes, 15 at most, Grob shoots a maximum of 20 images. While this is going on, his assistants are busy in the background and other models are in the room filling out their papers and waiting, all of which adds to the relaxed, informal nature of the process.
Being with one's self: Roland Barthes once reflected, from the point of view of a person being photographed, on the traps which photographers and their models almost randomly fall into: "The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture."(3) In this series of portraits Grob has been able to evade this stereotype and truly find his own stance as a photographer. This is due above all to his sense for certain individuals, his ability to immediately comprehend their existence and – using his rapid way of working – capture it, undisguised, in his medium. Robert Mapplethorpe portrayed people as timeless, classically beautiful sculptures. Richard Avedon made his rodeo models be still for as long as it took to uncover just the aspect he was looking for, like a pathologist working to uncover the source of a disease. Grob is able to show us people the way they are when, unobserved, they reflect on themselves: meditative, questioning, amazed, sunk in their thoughts, smiling dreamily, snorting out loud, happy with themselves, suffering, in the throes of some secret sorrow.
Magical clarity: There is an outstanding artistic stance at the heart of the work of Hiepler, Brunier. Their images are not just about technical finesse. Their choice of subject and detail as well as their sense of how light can portray a mood make for pictures with a heightened sense of reality. Looking at these pictures we don't have the feeling, even when focusing on a particular element, that we are simply seeing a set of details. Their composed images are characterized by formal balance and a subtle equilibrium. Even when gigantic conveyor belts are truncated, the picture maintains a complete, formal coherence. This autonomy makes for the kind of artistic "added-value" that Renger-Patzsch, referring to his images of industrial architecture, described as a kind of poetry: "The absolutely correct reproduction of form, the fineness of tonal gradation from the most pronounced highlights to the deepest shadows lends a technically skilled photographic image the magic of direct experience."(4) There are no narrative moments in the work of Hiepler, Brunier. The "experience" these images give us is a result of the magical mood contained in the locations themselves. These pictures do not suggest a specific reading and they remain emotionally circumspect – Hiepler, Brunier do not make judgments. Their goal is to show what's there. Their tools are depth of field, panorama and night photography. Their mastery of focus is phenomenal. Every centimeter of the area depicted is as clear as if it were being viewed through a magnifying glass. This lets them show us, in one and the same picture, the gigantic round tower of a cement plant against a wide landscape, with the dented, corrugated iron roof as clear and razor-sharp to our eyes as the rice fields in the far distance. This kind of panorama view brings the boundary line between nature and industry into focus, while the night images, like x-rays, separate the industrial structures from their environment, making them seem like phantoms. Hiepler, Brunier have here created images which hide nothing, embellish nothing, and reveal nothing but the facts, in complete, total clarity: the smooth functioning of immense industrial production centers as well as the interplay between technology and nature. These images are more than just updates of the Straight Photography of the early 20th century, or of its more documentary continuation in the New Topographic Movement of the 1970s. They display neither a pathos of objectivity à la Renger-Patzsch, nor are they inspired by the "awe of the object" (5) as Paul Strand once was. With their magical clarity they also differentiate themselves from the stereotypical minimalism of Bernd and Hilla Becher.
True pictures: Photography, once the most demonstrative medium for the facts of reality, is today generally suspected of being a lie. Any photographic reality can be manipulated, whether, as in the past, via retouching, or as now by means of a computer. Digital images, furthermore, betray no sign of manipulation. The line between reality and virtuality is a thin one. The blurred nature of modern photography is more than just a contemporary attitude, it is the symptom of the malleable sense of reality in our overly media-dependent society. Since all images can be manipulated, deciding if something is true or not is less a question of fact than of our willingness to believe in it or not. Both Grob and Hiepler, Brunier on the other hand have shown in their reporting on the real world that, with the precision of their gaze, they can still equate photographic art with reality. In the exhibition "Industrious, Marco Grob & hiepler, brunier," this question of reality is put to the test. It brings the portraits of the workers and the images of the production facilities together, first at the Museum of Fine Arts Bern and afterwards in the former Holcim works in Holderbank. The unbelievable precision of these pictures is most clearly seen in the large, baryta paper prints. In black and white, they become both hyper-realistic and abstract. In the larger format, their suggestiveness is magnified. The reality which they reflect is condensed, as through a concave mirror, until it reaches such an intensity that we are forced to consider a new kind of magical precision in the depiction of reality by contemporary photography.
1 As told to the author by Marco Grob, Ho Chi Minh City, August 4, 2011.
2 As told to the author by Balthasar Burkhard, Chicago, February 2004. See Matthias Frehner, Omnia, Balthasar Burkhard, Bern 2004, page 15.
3 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida. Reflections on photography, translated by Richard Howard, New York 1981, p. 13.
4 Albert Renger-Patzsch, Ziele (1927); in: Wolfgang Kemp (ed.), Theorie der Fotografie II, Munich 2006, p. 74.
5 Paul Strand, Fotografie (1917); in: Wolfgang Kemp (ed.), Theorie der Fotografie II, Munich 2006, p. 59.