The German photographer Thomas Kellner (born 1966, Bonn) ranks among the world’s eminent photographers of architecture. He developed an original method of photographing buildings, achieving an unmistakable form of expression – the buildings in his photographs give the impression of dancing. Kellner totally places on its head the basic impact of classical architecture – its sense of stability, permanence, and order. He picks the world’s (thus far predominantly European) most well known monuments, landmarks, tourist attractions, and symbols, those epitomizing countries or cities. All of them have been photographed thousands of times by tourists, always from much the same angle and spot, from where they can be easily surveyed in their entirety. It is Kellner’s ambition to go beyond this routine way of looking at things.
What he seeks is to capture the image as it gradually composes itself on the retina of an observer who gives the building a thorough scrutiny, inspecting each detail in turn, as their gaze travels from one architectural detail to another, and the gradual focusing of the eyes adds up in their memory, where the overall impression is formed. Kellner’s method is similar: “My images are made up of eighty to three hundred shots. What takes longest is the preparation: first I find a suitable post and make a sketch, and then measure the image. Accordingly I select the right focal distance. Then I roll out a screen of sorts, a kind of script for the camera movement. Finally, all I have to do is ‘merely’ to realize the image, frame by frame.” The preparations before the photographing itself must therefore be as precise as possible – Kellner’s resulting photographs are merely a contact image taken from the series photographed, where there must not occur any kind of shift, or any corrections of image. This purity and virtuosity of execution are probably the features that make Kellner’s photographs most valuable from an artistic point of view. If the images were created through computer manipulation, they would lack their technical brilliance and their author would hardly rank among the most successful German photographers in the international art market.
After September 11, 2001, Kellner’s photographs – unwittingly – acquired a new accent as catastrophic visions of the fall of our civilization. For he has picked out its most notorious symbols: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre-Dame in Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the Cologne Cathedral, Big Ben, the Tower Bridge in London, the Acropolis in Athens, Saint Peter’s Cathedral and the Colosseum in Rome. In the end, the responses were not as negative as Kellner had expected – probably also due to the fact that though his images, architecture is shown in motion, where there is nothing tragic about it: the architecture itself is playful, with a merry life of its own. Since the terrorist attacks, he has in fact become even more successful in the United States than in Europe (his photographs have been acquired for instance by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, or the Art Institute of Chicago). Kellner’s approach is not stereotypical – he composes each building into forms evoking different emotions, emphasizing such elements that he finds most intriguing in each building. Classical buildings, such as for instance the Colosseum or the Parthenon are played out as melancholy fantasy across the faded glory of bygone empires, whereas the Brandenburg Gate stands its ground majestically as twentieth century buildings soar up belligerently into space.
At first glance, Kellner’s photographs are reminiscent of Czech Cubist architecture. Kellner was in fact directly inspired by Cubism – he refers to Delaunay’s experiments in painting, as for example in his decomposition of the colors and forms of the Eiffel Tower. We may compare Delaunay’s portrayal, Tour Eiffel (1910-1912), with Kellner’s 1997 photograph. Delaunay treats the subject more freely – he portrays the tower in red, picking out decorative details which he then elaborates on, without sticking to reality in any exact way: he observes it only so far as to render the Eiffel Tower reconizeable. Keller, who photographs in the traditional medium, is limited by the real colors available (although he opts for black and white material), and his tower rides into three crests. In 1910 Delaunay painted a building erected only recently, which was then the epitome of modern life; today, Kellner photographs a symbol of tourism in Paris. Delaunay worked with the most progressive artistic method of his day, looking at reality in a way radically different from that of painting previously; Kellner’s photographs may be viewed as symbols of the relative nature of all values today.
One may also be tempted to compare Kellner’s “Cubist” manipulated work with actual Cubist architecture, a rarity even within Czech Cubism. (Kellner intends to photograph the tourist attractions of Prague as well – it strikes me in this regard that if he selected as his subject for instance the Chochola villa in the Vyšehrad area, the Cubist principle of decomposition of forms when applied in his photographs would be raised to a higher power). Cubism in architecture, in keeping with the theories of Pavel Janák, employed a system of slanting geometric surfaces, which lent the facades of buildings thus treated a certain dynamism. If we look at the Cubist streetlamp on the piazza in front of the entrance of the cemetery of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Prague (designed by Emil Králícek) and at Kellner’s photograph of the Brandenburg Gate, we perceive that in both cases the pillar appears nearly identical. All buildings in Kellner’s camera turn into dynamic structures, most of them acquiring a more Modernist mien – contemporary trends in architecture tend in favor of dramatic, organic structures, as exemplified for instance by the work of Frank Gehry.
Kellner has always been interested in experimental and conceptual photography: when experimenting with a number of time-honored techniques (planography, salt paper process), apart from a strong visuality he is also always in pursuit of the content of the image (in the years 1989 – 1996 he studied sociology, political science, economy and the arts at the University in Siegen, training for a career as a secondary school teacher of the humanities and visual arts). The theme of his diploma work was a documentation of the six thousand kilometer long West German border. In his project Facades (2004) he achieved an abstract effect by planting some of the buildings in urban surroundings in startling sizes and with an irritating heterogeneousness of pixels. Yet another method of dematerialization… We will see what other themes architecture will dance to in his rendition.
Dagmar Mazancová, June 2007
Mazancová, D., 2007. Portfolio. Thomas Kellner. In: Fotograf. Architecture No. 9, Volume 6, 2007, pp. 62-71.
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