The American Midwest, seen through German eyes

Joachim Brohm’s images of Ohio fused European and American sensibilities, as photography altered its course forever

There are two groups of photographers who put their stamp on contemporary fine art photography in the 1970s and 1980s. In the United States, artists such as Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and William Eggleston embraced colour, marking a decisive move away from the previously predominant black and white photography, and turned their cameras towards what had previously been considered the mundane. Meanwhile, in Düsseldorf, Germany, Bernd and Hilla Becher founded what would later become the Düsseldorf School of Photography, re-introducing older ideas of objectivity and educating some of today’s photography heavyweights, among them Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff.

This broad picture conveniently explains the state of today’s art photography scene – but it misses a few details. While generally seen as two separate schools, artists like the Bechers, or indeed Ruff, have always acknowledged their debt to photographers such as Shore, for example, whose work they knew and admired. And just as Shore’s photographs made their way across the Atlantic, so did the Bechers’, which were famously included in the ground-breaking New Topographics exhibition, held at the International Museum of Photography in New York in 1975.

What is more, not only was the work produced in Düsseldorf very heterogeneous (which makes the term “Düsseldorf School” itself somewhat misleading), contemporary German photography also extends well beyond the city’s limits. An interesting case in point is provided by Joachim Brohm, a professor of photography at the Leipzig Academy of Visual Arts, who was educated in Essen (probably the centre of German photography before the advent of Düsseldorf ) and in the US. In the early 1980s, as a somewhat unlikely Fulbright Scholar, Brohm spent a year at Ohio State University in Columbus, immersed in the American art scene when colour photography had just come of age.

The results of this single fortuitous year are now – finally! – available in book form as Ohio, published by Steidl. If it was just the mixing of German and American sensibilities at a time when art photography was undergoing a paradigm change, Ohio would be a historically interesting book. But because the work was done by a master photographer who is less well known than his Düsseldorf contemporaries, the book is more than that. It’s a veritable masterpiece.

Ohio clearly shows photographs taken in the United States, but it is not obvious that it is Ohio. It could be New Jersey maybe, or Illinois. Ohio shows the artist’s idea of the US, smartly defusing whatever objections anyone might have if the body of work was named, ‘America’. America: that’s a big and loaded idea. Ohio: that’s the generic America, where what matters are the images; the America that, were you to exchange the cars for newer models, has not changed all that much in the 25 years since these photographs were taken. It’s the America seen with eyes that are not all that different from Stephen Shore’s.

Ohio is more than just a footnote of photographic history. It will hopefully introduce Joachim Brohm to a much larger audience – on both sides of the Atlantic.

Jörg M Colberg runs the art photography blog, Conscientious. See jmcolberg.com/weblog. Ohio by Joachim Brohm (edited by Thomas Weski) is published by Steidl; £36. More information on Brohm, including details of his Areal and Ruhr books, at steidlville.com

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