Like her Düsseldorf school colleague Andreas Gursky, who I’ve written about on here before, Candida Höfer specialises in large-format photographs of big, man-made spaces. But Höfer’s subject matter has a tighter focus: very fancy, richly-coloured, and almost entirely depopulated, interiors.
The nine photographs on show right now at Ben Brown Fine Arts stick rigidly to her precisely-defined parameters (Höfer has been photographing interiors since 1979). Her empty spaces are built to host crowds of strangers: libraries, in Austria, France and Mexico; and theatres, in Russia and Italy. There’s an almost chilling technical perfection in her stillness, her focus. Is there a photographer alive with more immediately-recognisable work?
La Salle Labrouste - La Bibliothèque de L’INHA Paris III 2017
Höfer’s formalism only makes the hallucinatory beauty of the interiors she photographs all the more clear. My favourite from the show, showing the INHA, the art history library in Paris, looks almost computer generated, the parabolas of its pillared ceiling intersecting with the clean lines of the desks on the floor and the bookshelves on the walls.
Only white light, filtering in from the windows opposite Höfer’s camera or the skylights above it, is permitted. Höfer’s perspective tends to be from above: straight on, or at a diagonal angle to the room. Her interiors tend to be globalised: other than the Russian-language exit signs above the arena’s doors, you wouldn’t be able to pick the awesome Bolshoi theatre, photographed by Höfer in 2017, from any other major European opera house, unless you were a committed fan.
Despite the celestial light and hidden locations, these places are surely located in the here and now. Modern impositions on historic buildings - the basic plastic storage boxes in the back of an Austrian library, or the clunky computer monitors and keyboards on the desks in the INHA - are not elided. Gursky would have ruthlessly excised them in his career-long drive for uncompromising perfection. Höfer lets them stay.
In her objective-seeming, disengaged way, she shows us these awe-inspiring spaces as they are. She sees what’s really there. Do we?
Candida Höfer: Showing and Seeing is at Ben Brown Fine Arts (London). November 28 2019 - January 25 2020