Herbert Döring-Spengler – Photo-Sculptor

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Throughout the 20th Century there were some artists that overcame the traditional rules of “straight” photography and dared to take liberties with their interpretation of reality by means of special effects. Those working in the style of pictorialism come to mind, as well as the forerunner of digital manipulation, William Mortensen, who applied screens, razor blades, and other analog tools in creating final prints to achieve his desired artistic outcomes. Others, such as Andy Warhol, producing within a receptive era of pop culture, took Polaroids and found photographs to produce stunning altered views. Döring-Spengler, known as the “photo sculptor,” has gone more boldly beyond all the above in his interpretations. His motto is, “No matter how you see it, I see it differently.”

For several decades Herbert Döring-Spengler has been concerned with getting effects across to the viewer by unabashedly altering Polaroids and other images with a variety of physical processes, including heat, light shining through the prints, painting on top of the prints, and more. He combines parts of visuals in collages and diazetta (multi-layered) images to contextualize his interpretations. This photobook is based on a retrospective of his work, which was recently honored and exhibited at the LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn, Germany.

The images strike us as refreshingly different and full of surprises. For instance, the dance series not only show some of the expected poses, but suggest movement and repetition with variations. The bodies are blurred to a point of vulnerable non-recognition, which heightens the effect; the level of abstraction is so extreme that it makes us spend more time with each image, projecting our own interpretations into what is visible. The “speaking hands” series demonstrates through the depiction of motion that non-verbal communication can be equally expressive. The interpretations of Edvard Munch are vibrant yet subtle in their representation of life through colorful abstractions with hints of movement.

The portraits are very specifically produced, using abstraction and color while maintaining major impact and recognizability. The legendary singer and performer Marlene Dietrich is depicted in a semi-abstract image, diffused with vibrant warm colors, in such a way as to transmit a certain kind of eroticism and mystique, while maintaining a substantial distance to the subject (shown below). Other portraits, such as Picasso and Hockney, are more muted in effect, while others, such as Max Ernst and Francis Bacon, are marked by over-the-top or increased saturation. Each portrait shows the artist’s interpretation of well-known figures, which the viewer can check against their own recollections and concepts.

The image of the bouquet of cut flowers reminded me of similar images achieved through long exposures by Michael Wesely. Yet here the flowers nearing their end are given a heroic last showing of all their glorious colors, in multiple layers, even as the process demonstrates a similar rapid decline shown by the blossoms that have already fallen on the table.

The political images are also most interesting. Examples shown below include Döring-Spengler’s approach to over-simplified populism in the United States, the previous German chancellor’s approach to the refugee problem, and the deaths suffered at the hands of the former East German state. In all cases, the combined image portions and the color schemes and compositional acumen make for very strong statements, eliciting responses from the viewers.

As stated in the accompanying essays by Gabriele Uelsberg and Hans-­Michael Koetzle, not all images need to be soothing and reassuring. The processes described are the way in which the visual sculptor Döring-Spengler gets us to react and apply our own responses. The work is well printed on generously large pages, and constitutes a representative sampling of an amazing oeuvre that we can ponder again and again.


Gerhard Clausing, Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal, is an author and photographer from Southern California.


Herbert Döring-Spengler – Photo-Sculptor

Photographer/Visual Artist:  Herbert Döring-Spengler (born in Cologne; lives in Lohmar, Germany)

Editors:  Herbert Döring-Spengler, Burkhard Arnold, Thorsten Valk (LVR-LandesMuseum Bonn)

Publisher:  Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, Germany; © 2021

Essays:  Gabriele Uelsberg,  Hans-­Michael Koetzle

Languages:  German, English

Hardcover, illustrated, sewn binding; 144 pages, paginated, with 138 visuals; 9.6 x 12 inches (24.5 x 30.5 cm); printed and bound in Germany; ISBN 978­-3­-96900­-042­-7

Design:  Kehrer Design (Loreen Lampe)


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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