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Candida Höfer's photographs reveal a colossal cultural letdown

Infinite Moments at the ACA Gallery of SCAD is an exquisite and tightly curated exhibit

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Louis XIV of France turned marble into a political statement. The Sun King rode out to a country village outside of Paris and built Versailles with the explicit intention to overwhelm, to smack the nobles upside the head with the sensational bling of an infinity of shiny surfaces and sumptuous textures. His chandeliers and gold inlay were meant to say, "I am absolute power. Do not fuck with me."

The chateau at Versailles is one of several splendid 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century palaces of culture captured by German photographer Candida Höfer in an exquisite and tightly curated exhibition at the ACA Gallery of SCAD. Infinite Moments samples the artist's work from 2003 to 2007 depicting these empty interiors in nine monumental color prints.

Each photograph presents a colossal architectural space shot with available light in a pronounced one-point perspective. The spaces are uniformly empty of all human presence. Far from being devoid of vitality, however, Höfer reveals each gleam off the polished floors, each beam of light refracted through the chandeliers with documentary clarity. It's those clear sensory details emerging from the manifestly old spaces that give the photographs the extraordinary effect of suspension in time — like an intake of breath with no promise of release. Belonging neither entirely to the past nor entirely to the present, they exist — like infinity — outside of time.

But all of the floss, all those lavish details are really just the epiphenomena. They're the aftereffects of the photographs' real subject matter: the empty space in the middle. So unpopulated, so desolate, each picture achieves the sculptural effect of shaping the volume of empty space it encloses. Negative space becomes positive as the emptiness takes on an affirmative presence. The physical and social enclosures become active.

Höfer is an acolyte of the well-known Düsseldorf Academy instructors Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose other students include international photography giants Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, among others. Although widely known and collected in Europe, Höfer's less well known in the United States, and not as frequently represented in major collections as her peers. Given that she's likely to be wholly unfamiliar to Atlanta audiences, it seems less consequential that Infinite Moments represents a body of work the photographer has largely moved on from. (She's now concentrating on library interiors around the world.) 

The Bechers practiced what Bernd called the photography of precision. Höfer adheres to that method in almost all of her work. In "Schloss St. Emmeram Regensburg XI," for example, Höfer corrals a tonal range from the dark shadows of a back hallway to the bright facets of crystals in the lighting fixtures with stunning mastery.

For the Bechers, shooting architecture with unvarnished documentary clarity in postwar Germany was a political act. It wasn't popular in a nation attempting to flee its Nazi past to reflect the unromanticized truth in photographic images.

Now 70 years removed from the horrors of war, documentary photography retains its political force through its content more than its form. Fittingly, Höfer has relaxed the rules of her instructors who believed in precisely duplicating lighting and composition in an almost scientific cataloging of their subject matter. Höfer instead uses slightly different strategies of composition with each body of work.

But Höfer's work is no less political as she takes on a much larger subject than her forebears. Across the artist's entire body of work, she has made a systematic study of the great institutions of public culture: museums, libraries, schools, government structures, zoos and theaters. For 30 years she's been analyzing the whole structure of Western ways of knowing the world.

Infinite Moments focuses on a moment in history when Europe was formulating and refining those institutions. (There's one image from Buenos Aires, but the building is designed in a European neoclassical style.) Flush with the optimism of the Enlightenment, many of the depicted institutions were built with an explicit belief in the ennobling powers of order and light. A disciplined architecture was supposed to create an equally disciplined population. Everyone would be healthy, strong and happy. And the kingdoms of Europe would last forever.

But things didn't go as planned. Instead, the 20th century came along to put the kibosh on the idea that more knowledge necessarily leads us to our noblest selves.

That's why I can't help but see in Höfer's images the documentation of a colossal cultural letdown. She awakens the political memory of an optimistic era and casts doubt on everything the Enlightenment was supposed to accomplish. Her deserted images point to a hope in humanity that history ultimately never ratified.

Höfer italicizes this notion, driving home the point that the Enlightenment was, perhaps, beautiful, but it didn't work. It left us with a pile of gorgeous stage sets that can no longer sincerely promise human betterment through knowledge. There's no redemption in clarity. The spaces are beautiful, but finally, empty.

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