Remarks on the Conception, Impact and Reception of Robert F. Hammerstiel’s Pictures

"The objects are so arranged that they express the causes of which they are the result."
(Paul Strand)

The publications about Robert F. Hammerstiel which have appeared since 1985 communicate a concentrated work on groups of photographic productions and on series in which the Austrian artist did not only expand his use of media by introducing videos and installations, but also dealt with certain topics, visual ideas and programmes in ever more complex contexts and combinations of systems.

The texts published so far have concentrated on responding to individual groups of works or – like Peter Zawrel's text, Poesie, Kritik und Ironie1) in 1998 – have attempted to describe basic characteristics of Hammerstiel's position and development in an overview of his works. Zawrel's text was published on the occasion of the Glücksfutter exhibition at the Stadtgalerie Saarbrücken, Germany and at Le Crédac in Ivry-sur-Seine. In the same book, a short essay by the Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek was also published for the first time.2) The fact that in the list of contents of the book Glücksfutter a distinction was made between ”contributions” by Christian Gattinoni, Bernd Schulz and Peter Zawrel (on art history and theory) and Jelinek's literary ”text” raises an issue regarding the conception and reception of Robert F. Hammerstiel's work which seems to me important for several reasons: Jelinek's essay, Unruhiges Wohnen (Uneasy Living) in the context of the 1998 publication does not formulate an analytical approach to Hammerstiel's work. Instead her text functions as a ”word picture” parallel to the artist's works. For me this raises the question as to whether precisely this constellation might not be the most appropriate way of approaching Hammerstiel's work. Or in other words: how much explanation do his pictures require? The conception of his work itself is focussed with absolute precision in each image both formally and iconographically. Moreover, aspects of technical finishing, format, framing, staging and presentation follow an artistic calculation which causes each work to appear as a comprehensively reasoned and designed response to a system of reference chosen in advance. The quality of Hammerstiel's works lies in their concise character. Content and form of each work are exactly matched to each other. The image functions as a visual concentration of information values whose redundancy and symbolic content are made visually dynamic at the meta-level of the photographic and cinematic shot.

Robert F. Hammerstiel has summed up the aim of his work in the two following statements selected as examples. On the one hand, it is a ”visual discussion of artificial structures and forms…, (aimed at making) their dysfunctional/unsettling quality just as visible as their aesthetic quality”3). On the other hand, he shows in his works the ”discrepancy between ready-made images and … man's longing for idylls”4).

The first quote was drawn from Robert F. Hammerstiel's 1988 catalogue Stand-Orte. In this publication he had collected into a portfolio just short of 80 black-and-white photographs of abandoned petrol stations in Austria. The second quote was formulated by the artist in the catalogue for his exhibition Vergiss Mozart. Mediale Reflexionen über Distanz und Nähe at the Museum der Moderne in Salzburg in 2006.

The two quotes reconcile aspects which at first sight appear to be completely different. In the former, black-and-white photographs which were still described years later as ”classic examples of Austrian authorial photography in the narrower sense of the word”5). In the latter, large-sized colour photographs and videos as ”a multi-media reflection on a multiple Mozart image”6). Between these lie groups of works in which the artist, in taking up certain motifs, initiates their cinematic and photographic representation by means of extracts, isolation and enlargement of images as well as by staging manifold processes of transforming reality between construction and depiction. Thus his works of the 1990s, too, are defined by ever more radical methods of picturing objects and transposing extracts of reality into the impact of artificial worlds. At the same time, the questioning of reality – for instance, in the series Private Stories I – was also increasingly combined with considerations of stage-management. This latest series of large-size colour photographs from the years 2005 and 2006 appear diametrically opposed to the small-size black-and-white photographs of the 1980s. The reproduction of reality which was earlier linked with the author's subjectivity is faced with the later deconstruction of reality and the creation of new constellations and contexts.

It is noticeable that Hammerstiel, in the case of individual groups of works from his previous oeuvre, could also be linked with completely different concepts of photographic positions: works from the series Stand-Orte remind us of a tradition in American photography which, especially in the 1970s with Robert Adams, William Eggleston, Stephen Shore or Joel Sternfeld, made use of the aesthetics of amateur and journalistic photography, understanding the material of the street as a completely new pictorial concept. After Joachim Brohm, Michael Schmidt and Heinrich Riebeseel in Germany in the second half of the 1970s, Robert F. Hammerstiel also viewed his immediate living environment in the 1980s with a similar understanding of image and composition, reflecting in this way private and public cultural contexts. What finally led to the creation of his portfolios Grüne Heimat, Mittagsporträts and Public Intimity and was collected within the scope of an international exhibition tour under the significant title Der Stand der Dinge. Österreich7) (The State of Affairs – Austria), communicated a photographic aesthetic now also characterised by colour which could be directly linked to William Eggleston.

The latter's incorporation ”of undifferentiated images into an aesthetic concept” and the combination of the anonymous with the ”universal truth of art and life”8) corresponded to Hammerstiel's search for an intimacy which was declared by Heinz Liesbrock, speaking of the works of William Eggleston, to be a processing of unspectacular localities.

Hammerstiel's Der Stand der Dinge, in particular, combined documentary intention with the search for an iconic structure within the visible, a combination identifiable in Eggleston's works too. This approach was at the same time to characterise the discussion of the theme ”Alltagsdinge” by Jörg Sasse.9) What basically unites the photographic works within the three positions is the renunciation of any type of stage-management, a factor which was however to become an ever more significant element in Hammerstiel's pictorial concept in the course of the 1990s.

Thus his Private Stories I could easily be compared with Gregory Crewdson's pictures from the cycle Dream House. In both, the aim is to create constellations in which psychologically and emotionally charged tensions between cinematic-photographic situations and the actors shown in them occur. The differentiated references to positions whose names could also serve as examples of opposing directions in photography since the 1970s do not, however, in any way prove a pluralistic concept in the development of Robert F. Hammerstiel's work thus far. Instead, they communicate two aspects which on the one hand characterise the artist's work and on the other provide clear evidence for one of the most widespread discourses in recent photography and art theory concerned mainly with the dissolution of the previously existing diametric opposition between objectively documented reality and a staged model of reality. For is not Hammerstiel himself a virtuoso player on the theme of where the ”reference to the real” coincides with the ”paradoxes in the testimony to the real” and the reality of a scenario?

Do not his photographs, films and installations show just how images have lost their unequivocal effect in all directions? This phenomenon was discussed for the first time in 2003 by Thomas Weski. As a reaction to William Eggleston's series Los Alamos he affirmed the effect of a careful stage-management on his ”direct confrontation with the world”10) .Thus the author describes the phenomenon of changes in effect made by positions in American colour photography of the 1970s, in particular, as they began to tend towards subtly arranged photographs between image and reality, between invented scenarios and existing situations, thanks to the successive perfect artistic constructions of authenticity in the works of Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky.

Robert F. Hammerstiel places himself clearly in this field of discourse not just with individual pictures but with the sequence of his groups of works thus far. In this he is just as much a ”realist” as he is a ”stage-manager”. He occupies a terrain operating between fiction and reality and fills this gap between reality and imagination with precise interpretations of our lives, our everyday concerns, our dreams, longings and hopes. Thus he creates images which in the sense of the introductory quote by Paul Strand really do ”express the causes of which they are the result”11).

  1. Peter Zawrel: Poesie, Kritik und Ironie. In: Bernd Schulz (ed.): Robert F. Hammerstiel. Glücksfutter. (Heidelberg: Kehrer, 1998), pp. 32–39.
  2. Elfriede Jelinek: Unruhiges Wohnen. In: ibid, pp. 6–9.
  3. Robert F. Hammerstiel: Stand-Orte. Exhibition catalogue. (Vienna: Niederösterreichisches Landesmuseum; Frankfurt: Kunstverein, 1988), no p.
  4. Robert F. Hammerstiel: Vergiss Mozart. Mediale Reflexionen über Distanz und Nähe. Exhibition catalogue. (Salzburg: Museum der Moderne, 2006), p. 12.
  5. Peter Zawrel: Poesie, Kritik und Ironie, p. 36.
  6. Robert F. Hammerstiel: Vergiss Mozart, p. 12.
  7. Robert F. Hammerstiel: Der Stand der Dinge. Österreich. Exhibition catalogue. (Linz: Neue Galerie; Heidelberg: Kunstverein; Odense: Museet for Fotokunst, et al, 1991).
  8. Heinz Liesbrock (ed.): Joachim Brohm. Ruhr. Fotografien 1980–1983. (Botrop: Josef Albers Museum Quadrat; Göttingen: Steidl, 2007), p.16.
  9. Cf. Jörg Sasse: Vierzig Fotografien 1984–1991. (Darmstadt: Museum auf der Mathildenhöhe; Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1992).
  10. Thomas Weski: Entwurf einer Vorstellung. In: Thomas Weski (ed.): William Eggleston. Los Alamos. (Zurich, Berlin, New York: Scalo, 2003), p. 173.
  11. Quoted from Heinz Liesbrock (ed.): Joachim Brohm, p. 18.

Martin Hochleitner