Rebecca Wilton

The Conjunctive of Photography: Timm Rautert’s Image-Analytical Photography

Linda Conze and Rebecca Wilton

Timm Rautert, Selbst mit Kamera gedreht (um 0º 180º) (Self with camera turned [0º 180º]), 1972. Montage of negatives, gelatine silver bromide, 20.4 x 26.9 cm. Courtesy SKD Kupferstich-Kabinett Dresden

Timm Rautert’s Image-Analytical Photography, created from 1968 to 1974, highlights the fundamental conditions of photographic work: from taking the picture to the development of the images under an enlarger in the lab to the various possibilities of presentation. A systematically elaborated ensemble of analog black and white and color photographs, image-text compilations, from manuals and photographic materials, provokes elementary questions about what photography means as a medium, what is expected from it and how it has actively shaped the perception of the world, today more than ever. Among the 56 individual works are both scene-like black and white photographs, passport photos, lab experiments, combinations of selected photo prints with their negatives, but also non-photographic materials like a grey card (used for measuring light mainly in photo studios), postcards and graphic manuals. It is noteworthy that many of the photographs here are placed in a direct relationship with language. Textual elements appear in, on and next to many images, though they are often very brief. These could be technical information, but also concrete names or “statements” culminating in a photographed quadrilateral handwritten letter. Every single exhibit becomes an element of “analysis” showing the numerous potential scenarios of photography.

Rautert designated the working group as “grammar” of photography early on – at first glance it’s an obvious concept in the exhibition and presentation of photographic processes and modes of action. But, can there be a “grammar of photography” in the strictest sense? In this regard, it’s worth taking the meaning of grammar under consideration. Primarily, it describes a system of coordination and orientation – rules founded on convention (thus quite mutable), with which language can be learned, mastered and even analyzed.


Following the parallel hypothesis, photography would correspond to language. One could test all of the pre-formulated variants and possibilities and ascertain the various “cases” and “modes.” At first, it seems that the use of the term “grammar” is obvious and tempting in the search for tangible descriptions for the understanding and comprehension of images,[1] nevertheless, an objection can be asserted that gives rise to one of the cores of Image-Analytical Photography. Grammar forms a specific reference to the respective language, “in the sense in which all texts in English ultimately depend upon the English language.”[2] Could there be such a singular reference system for photography and would it not require the outdated assumption of photography as a “universal language”?[3]


So, instead of bringing up the term “grammar” with its associated objective of clear, concrete and applicable definitions, it seems much more instructive to care about the meaning of the term.[4] For example, if copies of the same negatives are exposed differently, their descriptions as “darker” or “lighter” by no means adequate to the respective changes to the image in its mode of action. Here we approach the idea of experimental arrangements, which accompany much of Image-Analytical Photography. Initially all 56 exhibits can be systematically categorized: there are the (laboratory) experiments, the photographic material (film, photographic paper, camera), the photographic situation, the gesture and authorship, as well as documentation and narration and ascriptions of meaning in the image-text combinations.

Various aspects of photography are thoroughly spelled out. Something significant arises during the classification attempt: It is not possible to sum up a single photograph or a single ensemble of images with only one of these categories, multiple intersections spin a network of semantic relationships, which imply the impossibility of an unambiguous and one-dimensional definition. Rautert knows how to use the wealth of references that unfold. Especially with the inclusion of non-photographic materials, labeled captions, technical specifications and stamps, which suggest their wider contextualization as “grammar.” Neither “what you see is what you get” nor “L’art pour l’art” – for Rautert seeing the photograph in one or another context is not consequential, neither as a visual medium that purely reports, nor in the sense of an autonomous artwork. Ultimately, categorization occurs at the place of presentation (for example, as a newspaper image, in a museum context, or, presently, on the monitor) – and with this another important aspect is revealed, another of the many reference systems of photography.

At the time of the emergence of the body of work, photography, especially in Europe, did not occupy a firm position within the art world at the very least its status remained precarious. After the first encounter of the medium with art museums around the turn of the century in the genre of Pictorialist “art photography,” it was only after the experiments of New Vision and the programmatic, technically clear imagery of New Objectivity that photography was discovered by conceptual art. But the artists of the 1960s are rarely genuine photographers, just as photographers are rarely genuine artists – or only rarely understood as such. In the wake of Marcel Duchamp’s programmatic ready-mades, conceptual art operates with meaning and ideas instead of form and material and then it began, next to a number of other practices and media, to make use of photography. In the years during the emergence of this group of works, Rautert frequently traveled to New York, where the mid-20th century history of photography follows a different rhythm from that of Europe. There he also found himself in the circle of Andy Warhol’s factory. During one of his stays he took an unusual portrait of Walter De Maria, consisting of photography solely of his New York studio. These images were published in Avalanche magazine in 1972 – where they appeared as works of De Maria himself, while Rautert is only named in the imprint as a photographer. Shortly afterwards he received a letter from De Maria. His friend, the collector Sam Wagstaff, was quite impressed by the photographs of the “portraits” and wanted prints – made from the original negatives by Rautert himself. Rautert fulfilled the request. Consequently, in 1984 works by Rautert were included in the Getty Museum, where Wagstaff had bestowed his collection. Thus, they entered into an explicitly institutional art context.

Despite, or in addition to, this initial approach of photography and art, the photographs from the end of the 1960s are first and foremost commodities (they are paid for according to their practical value) and are visible as such in Rautert’s work in the form of passport photos, manuals for Polaroid cameras or in snapshot scenarios. At the same time fundamental questions of authorship, and of originals and reproductions, which have been connected since the invention of photography and were particularly urgent in a specific way in those years, achieved a new discursive context. Photography was not only criticized in relation to its use in mass media. There, where art is political and people scrutinize, discuss and fight their place in society, the technical image medium, with its enormously suggestive power and claim to truth, was experiencing a particular kind of suspicion. Rautert was always against this kind of reading of photography. For example, Susan Sontag in her influential book On Photography, developed at about the same time as Image-Analytical Photography and published in 1977, denies the medium any connection to the world, accuses it of being manipulation and deception with its viewers are stuck in Plato’s caves.[5] Rautert tirelessly defends photography as a form of access and as a way to wrest knowledge from this world. Not in the sense of an objective investigative instrument, rather in constant awareness of the subjective gaze – especially in the supposed one-to-one situation of mechanical image making. Rautert assumes the implications and medial particularities of photography and aggressively works them. The mass dissemination of images, which by no means constitutes an original subject in today’s digital age, has fascinated the photographer since the 1960s. In his numerous journalistic works that followed Image-Analytical Photography, he immersed himself quite practically in the process of mass reproduction – with constant attention to how copying changed the photographic image. An unrealized sketch for one work for Image-Analytical Photography, positions an original next to a print. Below it: “1/380000 This photograph has been published in an edition of 380,000.” Also in the converted works, which found their way into the cycle, we repeatedly encounter the questions of original and reproduction as a central theme. “This is a photograph. It can be arbitrarily reproduced by me any number of times” is the stamped signature under two works in the work cycle. While one image shows a portrait of Pina Bausch, in another Rautert’s camera observes the moment of photographing itself. He is behind a woman who is takinga souvenir picture in which three people are posing. The ego of the photographer can also be found textually in the work – the photograph “can be … reproduced by me” ­– yet the stamp, it is neither handwriting nor is it a signature, places the statement at a distance to a real personified author. The interest shifts from original and originality towards the authorship of reproduction: the power over replication and the apparatus itself – a power which was loudly discussed at the end of the 1960s in relation to mass media and the contemporary critique of capitalism, and more quietly in Rautert’s work. It’s not only in the visual arts or photography that the author (explicitly in the male singular) is an urgent topic, rather first and foremost in literature and its science. This is the time when strong author figures declare the death of the author, arguing that the readers or spectators alone, in the very process of reading or perceiving, produce the meaning of a text or an image.[6] In Image-Analytical Photography Rautert also reflected on explicit questions of authorship and is always visible as a concrete author figure. He presents himself, is mirrored in multiple refractions, even remains as a question and is especially present where he allows himself to disappear. With a serious expression in the Fotofix booth, which has already served the surrealists as well as Andy Warhol as a paradigmatic instrument, or more humorously with a Santa Clause mask in front of a mirror, Rautert turns himself into the subject of discussion as a photographer, as the operator and servant of the camera.[7] Just as in visual arts, which were his environment during the conception of Image-Analytical Photography, he repeatedly refers back to literature, and even more to linguistics, in order to position himself, talking of himself as a reader and thereby bringing up a model that is granted new consideration and discussion within the framework of the linguistic turn, meaning the turn towards the exact examination of linguistic forms of mediation. This historic field of discourse provides a background for the conceptualization of the work as “grammar” – a seemingly authorless genre that works systematically and inter-subjectively.


“I believed that photography makes processes shine through and visible, that it imparts new knowledge, is very timely and the image instrument of our century, that it represents the technical model which it is built on. That’s why it was useful to me for something other than in just the context of art.”[8] What is this “other,” around which Rautert expands the “use” of photography outside the context of art, which is by no means aimed at the simple differentiation of art vs. photojournalism? The early group of works can be understood as the basis for Rautert’s own work, as well as a constant companion in the examination of the medium, which he will continuously work with. Its restricted period of development in the years between 1968 and 1974, partially during his studies and therefore certainly designated a “debut,” suggests just that presumption. In the ensuing decades none of these specific forms of reflection photography by the means of photography re-appear in Rautert’s work. But Image-Analytical Photography continues to inform his ensuing series, which today can be interpreted on its basis. Similarly, they illustrate a claim that form both insistence and encouragement, a commitment to the medium of analog photography to which Rautert remained true, even in later years: “I want to have seen what I show in the image. I want to understand what it was. I want to have been in front of this reality. I want to be a part of this reality and I want to participate in it with my camera.”[9]

Almost five decades after the creation of his Image-Analytical Photography this “other” seems to be more present than ever, even if the just cited quotation is one of the most plausible differences – many online formats that only communicate with “photographs” (partially provided with succinct captions and hashtags) exist and, for example, according to the latest statistics from the Instagram App, every minute over 40,000 photos and videos are uploaded. Of course, the conditions of the reception of digital images are different than those for analog photography, as Rautert presents to us. “Also and especially in the digital age all manipulations of the photographic result are indebted to the truth awarded to photography, to the authenticity guaranteed by their technical character.”[10] A present “grammar” would certainly have to assume very different forms in some if its paragraphs – which ultimately applies to the emancipated recipient, precisely to be aware of such that condition of origin and mechanisms of photography that Image-Analytical Photography shows us.

Can there be a “grammar” of photography? Hardly in the strictest sense – and yet the term grammar calls for a discussion about its nature that has been virulent since the very beginning of photography: from the naïve label as a “universal language,” which includes a belief of objective representation, to the “interplay of iconic, graphic, and narrative conventions”[11] that significantly contribute to the understanding of photography. Rautert broadly fans this spectrum in Image-Analytical Photography, transcending the age of analog photography.

Translation from German: Alicia Reuter


Published in Timm Rautert: Bildanalytische Photography 1968–1974, Spector Books, Leipzig 2016, pp. 18–20.


[1]                Appropriately, theories of language-related terms still frequently appear for precisely for this reason.

[2]                Victor Burgin, quoted by Peter Lunenfeld, Snap to Grid: A User’s Guide to Digital Arts Media, and Cultures (Cambridge, MA, 2000), p. 190.

[3]          For the „universal language“ myth see: Wolfgang Kemp, “Fotografie als Sprache,” in Theorie der Fotografie, Vol 3, (Munich, 2006), p. 24.

[4]                To find out „what a term means to me it is useful to first put into play all the possible consequences of this notion” ­– from a proposal from Manfred Schmalriedes, who, together with Rautert established the meaning of “Image-Analytical Photography” on the occasion of his first exhibition at Spectrum Photogalerie in Hannover, in “Die ‘Bildanalytische Photographie’ vor dem Hintergrund der heutigen fotografischen Kunstproduktion,” in Timm Rautert, Rückwirkende Realität: Prinzip Fotographie, Gespräche (Leipzig, 2007), p. 46.

[5]                Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York, 1977). In particular the essay “In Plato’s Cave”; the texts collected in the book had previously appeared (between 1973-1977) in the New York Review of Books.

[6]                Particularly influential for the theoretical discourse here is Roland Barthes text “The Death of the Author,” which was first published in English in 1967 in Aspen Magazine 5/6.

[7]                See Stefan Gronert, “Alternative Pictures: Conceptual Art and the Artistic Emancipation of Photography in Europe,” in Douglas Folge, The last picture show. Artists using photography 1960-198 (Minneapolis, 2003), p. 86-96.

[8]                “Daniel Stemmrich in Discussion with Timm Rautert,” in Timm Rautert, Rückwirkende Realität: Prinzip Fotografie, Gespräche (Leipzig, 2007), p. 29.

[9]                “Carmen Schliebe in Discussion with Timm Rautert,” in Timm Rautert, Rückwirkende Realität: Prinzip Fotografie, Gespräche (Leipzig, 2007), p. 13.

[10]              Falk Haberkorn, “Sebastian, abgehängt,” in Hans-Werner Schmidt, Timm Rautert. Wenn wir dich nicht sehen, siehst du uns auch nicht, Fotografien 1966-2006, (Göttingen, 2006), p. 272.

[11]              Allan Sekula, „Der Handel mit Fotografien,“ in Paradigma Fotografie, (Frankfurt am Main, ​​2002), p. 262.