Review by Wayne Swanson •
The classic 20th-century typologies of basic building types by Bernd and Hilla Becher are a hard act to follow. But Thomas Kellner puts a 21st-century spin on them in this monograph with the mouthful title Fachwerkhäuser des Siegener Industriegebietes heute (half-timbered houses of the Siegen industrial area today).
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, while the Bechers were making names for themselves with their typologies of industrial building types, they also cataloged the simple houses in the Siegenland region of Germany. In 2015 Kellner, a German fine art photographer who lives in Siegen, rephotographed 19 of the remaining half-timbered houses, capturing what has changed and what remains the same.
At first glance, Kellner’s images seem to match the deadpan aesthetic of the Becher originals. But there is something different going on here. These are not 20th-century large-format analog images with crisp depth of field across the frame like the Bechers made. Rather, they are 21st-century digital images, desaturated to black and white with a few subtle hints of color remaining, and featuring a shallow depth of field aesthetic that blurs all but the facade of each house. Kellner’s approach accentuates the formal qualities of the structures, while the foreground and background fade away to give the images the feel of magical realism.
As with the Bechers’ images, we see the variations on a theme that are present in buildings of a give style. But we also see the changes time has brought. The basic façades appear to be unchanged, but the details — energy-efficient windows in sizes, shapes, and placement that differ from the originals; new doors; new decorative shingles — show how generations of owners have put their own stamp on the houses. And while the Bechers did not allow any distracting extraneous details in their images, a few people, cars, satellite dishes, and other everyday details creep into Kellner’s images, giving the houses a more lived-in appearance.
Kellner has made something of a career reimagining architectural subjects in clever ways. He is perhaps best known for his mosaics constructed from 35mm film contact sheets showing subjects ranging from the Eiffel Tower to the Grand Canyon, in which the gentle overlap or overt skewing of individual frames add creative dissonance. His half-timbered house images are more straightforward, yet the hint of color and dreamy blur around the edges push them more toward subjective than objective photography.
The images are beautifully reproduced and printed large — 6.25 x 8.5 inches — with one image per spread, making it easy to appreciate the formal details of each house and the differences among the houses. Kellner’s twist on the Becher typologies shows not only the evolution of these prosaic residential structures, but also the creative possibilities of fine art documentary photography.
The Big Picture by Thomas Kellner was previously reviewed on PhotoBook Journal.
Contributing Editor Wayne Swanson is a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
Fachwerkhäuser des Siegener Industriegebietes heute, Thomas Kellner
Photographer: Thomas Kellner, born in Bonn, Germany; resides Siegen, Germany
Publisher: Seltmann Publishers (Berlin, Germany, copyright 2021)
Introduction: Dr. Andrea Gnam
Text: German, English
Hardcover book, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 56 pages, 9.75 x 12 inches, printed in Germany
Photobook designer: Peter Büdenbender
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