Texts about Gottfried Jäger

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Bernd Stiegler

Gottfried Jäger: The Photographer of Photography

Laudatory Speech
on the occasion of the presentation of the Cultural Award 2014
of the German Photographic Society Berlinische Galerie, Berlin, 7 March 2014

If there is a photographer of photography, then it is Gottfried Jäger. But what, if anything, does it mean to be a photographer of photography? Subject and object seem to be one and the same here, photography both an object and a process. For Gottfried Jäger, this constellation is the starting point for a radical, reflected, self-reflexive and lucidly consistent exploration of photography as such, which is many things at once. Since Gottfried Jäger is a privy dialectician – who uses a triadic structure for organising the photographic and theoretical world in his books as well as the photographic works on his website – I, too, will draw on a trichotomy in this address: the first section is called “Concrete Autonomy”, the second “Here Comes the Photographer of Photography!” and the third “The Photographic World Map”.

1. Concrete Autonomy

Gottfried Jäger’s exploration of photography of photography is, above all, a politico-aesthetic decision: at a time when May 1968 was just around the corner, he, together with Kilian Breier, Pierre Cordier and Hein Gravenhorst, coined the term and the pictorial position of “Generative Fotografie” with an exhibition in Bielefeld. Held in the Städtisches Kunsthaus for four weeks during January and February of 1968, the Bielefeld exhibition seems far removed from the emerging political events, and yet it also defines a clear and resolute position. In line with Alexander Kluge’s dictum “In danger and dire distress, the middle of the road leads to death”, Gottfried Jäger and his colleagues do not navigate between the Scylla of the Subjective Photography of the Steinert School and the Charybdis of the so-called Total Photography à la Pawek – which dominated the photographic world back then; he does not smash against their rocks, but artfully pursues a new course instead. He avoids the cliffs of Enlightenment dialectics, but is nevertheless a strong proponent of Enlightenment thought and thus also a brilliant dialectician. When placed in front of the alternative to choose between the inner world of subjective impressions, on the one hand, or “New Realism”, on the other, Gottfried Jäger decides on the “inner world of the outer world of the inner world”, making the interior dimension of the photographic process the very subject of photography. Although this decision, and the path that subsequently ensues, initially seems to have little to do with the 1968 movement, it still fervently seeks that which, according to Adorno, is the essence of art: its autonomy.

Generative photography is the attempt to regain the autonomy of photography, to win back its lost liberty or establish its never-even-attained freedom and, at the same time, to radically develop a new pictorial language that is more than a subjective expression or an objective representation. Concrete photography was quickly to follow in its steps. As Gottfried Jäger explains on his website, generative photography is “a form of self-assertion”. Generative and concrete photography are kindred spirits and loyal comrades in the fight for the freedom of photography – which is what, above all, needed to be conquered early in 1968. This is about a different kind of revolution but still an aesthetically radical one, which bears fruit right up to the present day and has completely transformed the world of photography. Photographic autonomy has become concrete. For this, Gottfried Jäger must be thanked.

The fact that the Cultural Award of the German Photographic Association is being conferred on Gottfried Jäger today is a sign that the battle has been won and, to stay with the metaphor, that the march through the institutions was successful. Both Steinert and Pawek, from whom Jäger distanced himself back then, received this award decades ago – one of them a highly controversial posthumous prizewinner. Photography’s allegedly apolitical position gained its historical background in the context of the Nazi past, against which its photo-aesthetic convictions took shape. However, this is not the case regarding Gottfried Jäger, even if he mentions the great inner and outer battles that accompanied the beginnings, and which proved to be sham battles. Nevertheless, and this is also a sign of his particular dialogic-cum-dialectic qualities, he brought them into the institutions. The atelier and the college became the site of a dialogue, a field for experimentation both theoretical and aesthetic. In no way were only initiated colleagues invited, but anyone who had committed themselves to the new world of photography. Gottfried Jäger therefore transformed the discipline of photography at the Fachhochschule Bielefeld into the “Bielefeld School” which appropriately bears its name: it is not the declaration of a doctrine of photographic salvation, but rather a theoretical and aesthetic laboratory in pedagogy and research. One can no longer imagine the history of photography without it today. No place is as productive as this one and hardly any other has, in spite of formal doctrinal rigour, produced or even enabled a similar diversity in positions. A systematic interrogation of photography was conducted in Bielefeld – an examination which, with all due respect to innovation and the desire to experiment, has discovered and conquered history for itself. The Bielefeld Symposia on Photography and the Media, which have been taking place for over thirty years now, belong to this project as do the many invitations for comrades (allegedly so distant from the sphere of photography) like philosophers, literary scholars, media theorists and natural scientists to come and hold guest lectures. Indeed, the Fachhochschule became an experimental site for the new and liberated photography. And for all its repositioning, the Bielefeld School did not forget the history of the medium, but in the best dialectical sense transcended it. Photography has come into its own. This is the photographic dialectic that Gottfried Jäger has performed, implemented and brought to an open end in his own aesthetic and theoretical world. He has led photography back into the realm of freedom. And we must thank him profusely for this.

2. Here Comes the Photographer of Photography!

However, everything began with the machines. Being the photographer of photography that he is, Gottfried Jäger discovered that the freedom of photography, its autonomy, can only be attained if its technical requirements are clear to one’s mind and if the so-called apparative conditions of photographic image production are seen as a subject in and of itself. Freedom lies in the apparatus and can only be found there. Beyond the machinery, there could and should be all kinds of freedom albeit not a photographic one. There is no autonomy of photography without its technical deployment. This means that technology and aesthetics must go hand in hand. The autonomy of photography will be technical, or it will not be. That, too, is an exploit of the Enlightenment.

This particular technological elucidatory work pursuing a “systematically constructive path” also accompanied the beginnings of the entire movement which, as we saw, is aesthetic, theoretical and institutional in nature. For Gottfried Jäger, the trilogy of “apparative art”, “generative photography” and “concrete photography” – the context in which he has situated his work on his website and elsewhere – begins with the technical apparatus, which not only creates art but is also committed to science. The opposition between art and technology – influencing, taming and containing photography for over a century – is dialectically suspended, since Jäger understands photography as the interface between man and machine and, therefore, as the interaction between these two moments. Photographic art is technically necessary, and neither conceivable nor practicable without apparatuses, machines, techniques and processes. Thus, every photographer is a kind of cyborg or cybernetic organism, is part of a man–machine complex that photography must illuminate.

In the field of literary studies which is my academic home, a journal was founded back in 1961; its title Sprache im technischen Zeitalter (Language in the technical age) advocated that language and literature are significantly and sustainably influenced by technology and the media, and that traditional literary studies should finally accept this fact. Gottfried Jäger’s inquiry into generative and concrete photography may be seen as the counterpart to this journal in the world of photography. For as odd as it might sound, photography first had to arrive in the realm(s) of both freedom and technology – and hold its respective ground there. It, too, was strangely backward half a century ago and had constant recourse to a technology, the implications and preconditions of which were solely the object of scrutiny in a technical sense. The aesthetics and aesthetic theory of photography had to be brought up to modern-day standards. Traditional theories proved to be of little help in clarifying the function and position of photography in the technical age and the world of media, and even the ever-enthusiastic avant-gardists hardly helped. New theories were needed for understanding which role photography was to have in the technical world – hence the impressively broad theoretical repertoire lending force to Gottfried Jäger’s texts and a basso continuo to his photographic works. In the beginning, he still referred to Max Bense, whose generative aesthetics provided the inspiration for his quest, or he used models of concrete literature. An experimental novel by Helmut Heißenbüttel served as a reference for one of Gottfried Jäger’s first photographic series, which, however, should not be regarded as an illustration of the literary counterpart. It is an exploration of a style intrinsic to concrete photography and, in a very subtle manner, sounds out the boundaries of camera photography. The latter was to slowly disappear from Gottfried Jäger’s oeuvre and make room for the intrinsic logic of photography in one blow. Indeed, his photographic works have a wonderfully complex theoretical music to them so that every detailed consideration ends up transforming into insight. An outlook is necessary for reflection. This, too, is dialectics. And for this we must thank him as well.

Cybernetic theoretical models initially delivered the concepts that generated images and then, later, led to other surprising sparring partners who accompanied Gottfried Jäger on his probing path – such as the media theorist Vilém Flusser and the philosopher Lambert Wiesing, to name only two. He explored the vast universe of technical images or the possibilities and significance of a non-representational photography with them in an intriguing epistolary dialogue or responsive essays.

Yet on this side of the abstract theory, it is primarily a question of the concrete materiality of photographic processes. To quote Gottfried Jäger himself, this concerns the very “foundations of the photographic process” (Bildgebende Fotografie, p. 56). Thus, Gottfried Jäger not only works with a camera obscura, but also brings light to the darkness of the apparatus; he forces new and hitherto unseen images out of it which can be regarded as elementary forms, as he writes in his impressive book Bildgebende Fotografie. Moreover, Gottfried Jäger plays with the positive and negative as reverse moulds; he discovers the photogram as a possibility of exploring the avant- garde, in general, and Moholy-Nagy in particular, in an aesthetically theoretical manner as well as a means of going back to the roots of photography. He does this, however, with the clear intention of making what has become an image there into a true intellectual apperception. He works with camera photographs but also with photo and computer graphics, montages, luminograms, the idiosyncratic visual materiality of the photo paper and, last but not least, with multiple exposures made ad libitum. The world of photography is dismantled into its elementary units and then reassembled and put into series – experimental test series in their own right. Photography is not merely photography but is ultimately transformed: it becomes a technical- aesthetic-intellectual wonderland of images that are nonetheless entirely concrete. They are photographs of photography. Photography has evolved into a cosmos again and shows us a newly structured and differently configured world. Photography has become theoria, Anschauung, in the literal sense. It exposes another world to us – indeed, it is another world.

Through the world of insight and those images that the camera customarily takes, photography is mediated via theory. The insights and discoveries that the photographer of photography gains in the camera obscura are systematic developments of an aesthetic theory, which has devoted itself to the mission of photographic enlightenment; in no way does it limit itself to its own photographic work. Hence the particular theoretical strain intrinsic to Gottfried Jäger. His impressive oeuvre comprises not only numerous series of works revealing ever-new, ever-surprising pictorial worlds – which are rigorous and unwieldy, radical and reduced, vivid and inspiring all at once – but also his academic activity, his work at the Fachhochschule Bielefeld, and likewise the extensive collection of publications, which – if I listed them alone – would easily fill the remaining time for me. Around two dozen books would have to be mentioned, well over one hundred essays and also the many interviews, lectures, symposia and exhibition catalogues he initiated and helped to put together. Yet Gottfried Jäger’s oeuvre also includes his work as a curator, enabling many exhibitions from Heinz Hajek-Halke and Manfred Kluge via Herbert W. Franke and László Moholy-Nagy to Carl Strüwe, and his own academic research. Gottfried Jäger is, I would like to mention in passing, the only professor I know who was awarded his doctorate after retirement – with a dissertation on Carl Strüwe entitled Mikrofotografie als Obsession. Carl Strüwe (1898–1988). Das fotografische Werk (Microphotography as an obsession. Carl Strüwe (1898– 1988). The photographic work). Akin to Strüwe obsessively exploring the microcosm of photography, Gottfried Jäger does this for the macrocosm of photography. Both remain true to their search and discover a new world, which should really have been known to us long ago: it is the world of photography. It is a world with its very own laws. For these manifold discoveries, too, we must thank him.

Yet how is one to characterise Gottfried Jäger’s quest? Maybe by playing with the famous title of an avant-garde book: Here Comes the Photographer of Photography! He comes onto the stage of the photographic world in the late sixties, in order to make an autonomous world out of it with its very own laws and rules as well as a new language. Like the photographer of the 1920s, Gottfried Jäger is a theorist and craftsman in one: his aesthetic explorations advance theory just like theory in turn stimulates artistic practice, contributing to its progress. Both astutely and acutely, he likewise seeks a new language eschewing customary forms. Like Gräff’s photographer, Gottfried Jäger also seeks a didactic translation of the exciting discoveries made in the camera obscura of the apparatus. This is no longer simply a black box, but an apparatus that must be used to create a world in the first place. For the most part, every image produced is not only part of a series but the foundation of many others. The history of photography is born again, every time anew. In his works, like nowhere else, the history of photography proves to be reversible and productively repeatable. Indeed, Gottfried Jäger teaches us to see photography, this allegedly well-known medium, with completely new eyes.

And so here we come, once again, to the question of the autonomy of art and photography. In his philosophy of photography, the aforementioned Vilém Flusser saw only one single possibility of transforming the black box of the camera, with the determinism of its program, into a space of freedom: in his eyes, photography has the task “to reflect upon this possibility of freedom [...] in a world dominated by apparatuses”i and, thus, to sound out ways of “playing against the apparatus”.ii Otherwise, it would be nothing but an obedient medium heeding the pre-adjustments of the apparatus. Photography therefore determines the extent of man’s freedom in a world governed by the apparatus only by countering it with the camera. This, too, is a photography of photography. Insofar as we are talking about life in a technical age, the social import of photography thus becomes clear. This is what Gottfried Jäger as the photographer of photography has persistently and patiently pursued – and continues to do so. For this we must thank him as well.

3. The Photographic World Map

One of Gottfried Jäger’s most famous photographs was not taken by him, but by his wife Ursel. It bears the somewhat technical and enigmatic title “Gottfried Jäger präsentiert seine ‘Lochblendenstruktur 3.8.14 F’” (Gottfried Jäger presents his ‘pinhole structure 3.8.14 F’) – sometimes simply called “Pressefoto” (Press photo) – which probably only photo-historians or Jäger experts can decode. It dates from the notorious year 1968. Now, I am not intent on portraying Gottfried Jäger as a dyed-in-the-wool follower of the 1968 movement, since this would not do justice to his work, but rather as a creator of a photographic world with its own laws and resources. The iconographic tradition, which this very image is a part of, shows the way in which photography has now become a world.iii The Erbstorf World Map dating from 1300 depicts the divine creator of the world with bare feet; the world which he has created, and which includes a portrayal of paradise, has become his very body. We should add that the map was destroyed in the Second World War and was later reconstructed on the basis of photographic reproductions. But even in its present-day form, it shows damage done by mice in several spots, including the region in Germany where Gottfried Jäger was born: Burg in the Jerichower Land district in Saxony-Anhalt is nowhere to be found on it. Gottfried Jäger has filled this space in his very own way and restored it – albeit in another world: in the world of photography. Because when Gottfried Jäger presents to us the image he has created, he is showing us the photographic world. And the poodle that seems to be so busy at his left foot is no accident. As Enno Kaufhold suggests, the ironic reference is not to Faust but rather to Steinert – and thus the photographic core of the poodle.iv The fact that he created this world is, contrary to the divine world, by no means decisive, because the image is the result of a calculated process that Gottfried Jäger reconstructed in 1976 and in turn made into an image. And so we could decipher the enigmatic title in the following way: “3” refers to the “apparative system” – more precisely, to the “multiple pinhole camera with a variable light object” – “8” and “14” to the “sign structure collection, 1st order” of altogether 14 images and “F”, finally, to the “choice of creative process” (in this case, “rotational superimposition”). Ultimately, this set of choices can be continued and repeated, focusing on elementary forms of photographic processes centred around reproducibility. Indeed, photography has reached the age of technical reproducibility and sees this as a creative means of producing “generative systems” that stimulate autonomous forms intrinsic to photography alone. It is certainly not the best of all possible photographic worlds that is shown here, but rather more a photograph from a series in which various variables are run through, in order to bring forth legitimate photographs which in turn reveal the laws of photography. Its blueprint deliberately and consciously exposes the action plan: this is how photography functions. We have arrived at the degré zero, the point of origin of photography, at which every aesthetic and theoretical compass must align itself from now on. Yet the point of origin is not pure technology; it is one that presents images as theories. And so this image, like many others, concerns a veritable charting of the photographic world at large. Gottfried Jäger’s depiction thus enumerates laws, elementary signs, sign aggregates, sign structures, creative processes, application steps and presentation forms. These are the figures of the photographic world. And the photographer therefore holds the outcome of his quest in his hands – but not without a sense of pride and likewise not without a pinch of irony.

“Photography is a dialectic that has become an image”, we read in Gottfried Jäger’s book Bildgebende Fotografie.v To have transformed photographic visions into insights and discoveries is Gottfried Jäger’s special accomplishment. And for this, we must thank him once again.

Today, an award is being granted to him and, with it, a very special object: alongside an official document, the prizewinner is receiving a gold-rimmed optical lens designed by Ewald Mataré. Who, if not Gottfried Jäger, should receive the insignium of his own aesthetico-theoretical work as an award? When Gottfried Jäger holds the lens in his hands, then it will not only be a very special distinction but also a sign that photography is, in the best dialectical sense, in good hands. For this, finally, we would like to express both our gratitude and congratulations.

Translation from German Dr. Ariane Kossack


i Vilém Flusser, Für eine Philosophie der Fotografie (Göttingen 1983), p. 74.
ii Ibid., p. 73.
iii I would like to thank Felix Thürlemann for this insight. Cf. Bernd Stiegler and Felix Thürlemann, Meisterwerke der Fotografie (Stuttgart 2011), pp. 272 f.
iv Enno Kaufhold, “Laudatio”, in: Andreas Beaugrand (ed.), Gottfried Jäger. Fotografie als generatives System. Bilder und Texte 1960–2007 (Bielefeld 2007), pp. 10–19, here pp. 15 f.
v Gottfried Jäger, Bildgebende Fotografie (Cologne 1988), p. 84.


Gottfried Jäger 2014 - Laudatio Bend Stiegler​