Can­dida Höfer

Renowned for her images of de­pop­u­lated in­te­ri­ors, Can­dida Höfer’s work serves as a pro­found com­men­tary on hu­man­ity. She talks to christo­pher de woolf

Prestige (Singapore) - - CONTENTS -

can­dida höfer is known for her exquisitely de­tailed large-for­mat pho­to­graphs of opera houses, li­braries and palaces, but when she vis­its Hong Kong she likes to go small. “When I’m here I use my hand­held cam­era,” she says. “It’s dis­creet and I have it with me al­most al­ways. It gives me more free­dom.”

“It’s a Sony,” she adds, and then pauses a beat be­fore of­fer­ing a quick and mis­chievous smile. “And that’s not be­cause of the award.”

In April, Höfer was given the Out­stand­ing Con­tri­bu­tion to Pho­tog­ra­phy prize at the 2018 Sony World Pho­tog­ra­phy Awards. It’s a recog­ni­tion of her 50-year ca­reer as a pho­tog­ra­pher, one that be­gan un­der the tute­lage of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose black-and­white doc­u­men­ta­tion of Ger­many’s in­dus­trial land­scape cre­ated an en­tirely new genre of pho­tog­ra­phy — now known as the Dus­seldörf School — that stud­ied our con­tem­po­rary en­vi­ron­ments with a clear, un­wa­ver­ing gaze.

Höfer was most re­cently in Hong Kong for her an­nual visit to Art Basel. “We’ve come ev­ery year, from the time it was still Art HK,” she says, re­fer­ring to the orig­i­nal art fair that helped trans­form Hong Kong into a global art hub. She’s sit­ting in her Man­darin Ori­en­tal suite with her hus­band, who serves as an in­ter­preter for Höfer’s softly spo­ken Ger­man.

She’s po­lite but cir­cum­spect, with a man­ner of speak­ing that can come across as terse, but is per­haps just a re­flec­tion of a par­tic­u­larly fo­cused and de­ter­mined per­son­al­ity. Sev­eral years ago, when the Hong Kong fash­ion blog Ko­tur in­ter­viewed Höfer, her re­sponses were as il­lu­mi­nat­ing as they were suc­cinct.

“What are you least proud of?” asked the in­ter­viewer.

“I don’t think about it,” she re­sponded. “What’s your favourite smell?”

“No smell.”

“What’s your idea of a per­fect hol­i­day?” “I pre­fer to have no great hol­i­days. I like to re­lax and be by my­self, but I pre­fer in a way to keep busy.”

As her pho­to­graphs sug­gest, Höfer is not an ex­tro­verted per­son. In fact, she be­gan her artis­tic jour­ney by mak­ing por­traits of Turkish im­mi­grant fam­i­lies in 1970s Ger­many, but she could never shake the feel­ing that she was in­trud­ing on their lives. There’s a pal­pa­ble sense of dis­com­fort in those early images: A butcher awk­wardly half­s­mil­ing, a group of women pos­ing be­mus­edly as they en­joy a pic­nic.

“I was in­trigued by the way im­mi­gra­tion was chang­ing the im­age of Ger­man cities,” says Höfer. She even­tu­ally re­alised what she found most in­ter­est­ing was the en­vi­ron­ment in which th­ese mi­grants’ lives — the par­tic­u­lar ar­range­ment of tins in a deli, the mis­matched fur­ni­ture in a so­cial club. “It was the or­na­men­tal or­der of things, the way things are placed in space,” she says. At one point, she was pho­tograph­ing a fam­ily in their apart­ment, and

a dis­tinct feel­ing of in­trud­ing on their lives came over her. “I felt like I was us­ing rather than giv­ing,” she re­calls.

And with that, she changed her fo­cus. Höfer be­gan doc­u­ment­ing in­te­rior spa­ces com­pletely de­void of peo­ple and dis­cov­ered that, rather than feel­ing empty and de­pop­u­lated, they were alive with am­bi­tion and as­pi­ra­tion. The ob­jects and spa­ces that peo­ple leave be­hind says as much about them as they could ever re­veal to you them­selves. “With the ab­sence of peo­ple their pur­pose be­comes more ob­vi­ous,” says Höfer.

Over the years, Höfer has de­vel­oped a recog­nis­able style. She shoots in large for­mat — film at first, and now dig­i­tal — which al­lows for richly de­tailed images that need to be seen up close, in per­son, to re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate. She prefers a head-on per­spec­tive. “It’s the best way to cap­ture the feel­ing of the space or the space of the feel­ing,” she says. And though she’s doc­u­mented a num­ber of min­i­mal­ist spa­ces, par­tic­u­larly in her se­ries of pho­to­graphs of li­braries, she seems to have a fond­ness for the os­ten­ta­tious in­te­ri­ors of ear­lier, more gilded eras. “I feel that when you use large for­mat, some­thing neu­tralises the os­ten­ta­tion,” she says.

Höfer is of­ten cel­e­brated for her tech­ni­cal skill — her work has been praised by Scott Gray, the CEO of the World Pho­tog­ra­phy Or­gan­i­sa­tion, as “tech­ni­cally per­fect and so beau­ti­fully in­tense” — so it’s a sur­prise to hear her down­play that side of her craft. “It’s not my key in­ter­est,” she says. “My in­ter­est is in the im­age in front of me.”

Here in Asia, she of­ten finds her­self con­tem­plat­ing a very dif­fer­ent set of images. When she trav­els with her hand­held cam­era, she’s drawn to de­tails and colours, doc­u­ment­ing con­struc­tion sites, win­dows and the ephemera of every­day life. “They end up be­ing quite ab­stract,” she says. “I of­ten can’t re­mem­ber where I took them.”

But she thinks the end re­sult is the same. “The point is not to cap­ture the re­al­ity of the mo­ment,” she says. “It’s not a doc­u­men­tary. The point is to cre­ate an im­age.”

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