On view through August 16, Cool Objectivity at the Seattle Art Museum aims to chart the connection between German New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit), photography of the 1920s, and recent photographic practice. Small in number, the assembled constellation of works showcases the value of objectivity – as opposed to expressiveness – as a guiding principle in contemporary photography.
The question behind all the works in this exhibition is how photographing architecture can lay bare the cultural values inscribed within our built environment, and what it means for a photographer to adopt a position of detachment.
A trio of historical prints by German photographer Albert Renger-Patzsch anchors the exhibition. Taut and measured, they depict industrial and architectural subjects. The contemporary works on neighboring walls resonate in terms of both subject matter and attitude. Historically significant modernist buildings appear in photographs by both Hiroshi Sugimoto and Candida Höfer, although Höfer’s treatment feels precise and spare, while Sugimoto’s soft focus imbues his subjects with a sense of passing time. Nearby, Louise Lawler’s image of an art collector’s home turns a cool eye on a personally arranged domestic space (note: the James Rosenquist sculpture pictured in the scene also sits in the actual gallery), while Ed Burtynsky’s image of a shipyard in China records an industrial landscape, potentially prompting consideration of Seattle’s own importance as a coastal port. Doug Aitken’s diptych depicting nearly indiscernible offshore oil rigs burning at night tracks the reaches of the built environment as it extends even far out to sea.
Fresh VUE contributor Emilia Mickevicius is a graduate student in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture at Brown University specializing in the history of photography and modern and contemporary art.