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Axel Hütte
by Katerina Gregos

Axel Hütte, "Landscape"

Optical precision and a lucid observation of the world are what characterize Axel Hütte's photography. Hütte is part of a generation of German photographers that includes Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and Andreas Gursky (now in their 40s), all of whom have been students of Bernd Becher, who over three decades has been an influential figure in the creation of a unique photographic aesthetic. Contrary to the humanist strand that dominated European photography until the 1950s, Becher's systematic reportage-like photographs of industrial structures have been immensely influential in defining a new ideal in photography. In much the same vein, Hütte became known for his sober, clinical look at post-war German architecture, and later for his photographs that examined the uneasy interaction of buildings within the natural environment. His preoccupation with the exploration of landscape continues in a series of photographs taken in Greece and exhibited at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery in Athens.

Hütte's work is based on a strict visual language which is optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic "objectivity" and veracity. His series of photographs of the untamed Greek landscape are not prone to "artistic" editing, but rendered in a sincere straightforward manner that perfectly capture the precise physicality of the location depicted. Hütte's vision is one of precision and clarity. He approaches his subjects with a disciplined restraint that truthfulness of representation is never prone to doubt. In addition, he responds to the landscape with an unflinching respect for its morphological identity.

Hütte's is a sober reconstruction of the world based on rigorous organizing principles and a systematic approach to image-making, that transcends questions of taste. All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.

Hütte comes from a country with an influential tradition in radical naturalism. Similar to much of German romantic landscape painting, his photographs rely on the use of compositional and structural devices to create an intense atmosphere that evokes feelings such as solitude and loneliness. His vast expanses of space in the natural environment possess the meditative quality and air of detachment so typical of 19th century German landscape painting, and recall the concerns of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Yet at the same time, Hütte's unmediated observation is reminiscent of the quasi-scientific objectivity that also characterizes the German naturalist tradition. His direct rendering of the landscape avoids the trappings of emotional excess and entirely refutes the self-conscious pathos of the romantic tradition. Furthermore, the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar.

Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to "enter" the scene. Because there is no story told, there is no directed way of receiving the photographs; people can wander freely in the landscape and interpret it according to their own sensibility. By choosing uncomplicated yet dramatic vistas, Hütte also places an emphasis on the sublime value of the landscape, itself, and its inherent ability to stir the emotions and evoke feelings of awe.

Moreover, what is most remarkable in Hütte's work is that despite the lack of photographic effects, the systematic composition of each picture, and the sparseness and economy of his language, his landscapes manage to transcend the mundane. Despite his matter-of-fact pragmatism, Hütte's images possess that sense of metaphysical realism that overwhelms the viewer. This is also emphasized by the fact that he abstains from including people, and, thus, not only avoids the trappings of overt narrative, but also manages to eliminate any sense of time and any sense of decay.

When buildings are introduced into the landscape, usually in the foreground, they function not only as structural devices but as indirect reminders of human interference, as people are never actually depicted. This way Hütte comments on the imposed sense of order transplanted by man into the natural environment, and creates an uneasy juxtaposition between the artificial and the organic.

The desolation and severity of the Greek landscape seem suited to Hütte's austere vision of nature and the world, although it is important to point out that above all it is the idea of the landscape. One of the most interesting photographs in the show is a diptych of Mount Parnassus. In the foreground, two crystal clear images of rocks covered in half melted snow behind a vast expanse of sky bathes the landscape in a delicate blue light. Hütte, here, has managed to capture that magical moment when a rare phenomenon occurs and the the color in the landscape begins to alter. The effect is reminiscent of the sfumato technique of renaissance painters. In this case, the vastness of the landscape, its sheer physical force, reminds us of the irrelevance of human presence, and man's weakness in the face of nature.

Hütte's capacity for understatement is what enables him to capture the essence of his subjects. His strength lies in his refusal to impose a forced aesthetic, or to provide a comforting sense of the picturesque. Above all, he never denies the landscape its integrity. Refraining from nostalgic cliche or sentimental narrative, he is prone neither to idealizing, nor to romanticizing the landscape. He does not allow himself any excesses except that which the character of the landscape allows. Yet his images possess a discreet meditative charm and, at the same time, retain that quality which Kant has termed the "dynamically sublime."

Katerina Gregos

Athens, Greece
1996

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