Farewell to Perfectionism:
Heidi Specker’s Existential Photography

She’s just photographed Okwui Enwezor, director of the Venice Biennale, for ArtMag. This year, the Berlinische Galerie will dedicate an exhibition to her photography. Heidi Specker, whose works are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection, is one of the most important German photographers today. A portrait by Oliver Koerner von Gustorf.
Manufactured by Apple, Quicktake 100 was the first digital camera to appear on the market. It was with this gray thing, which looks like a cross between a video camera and a telescope, that Heidi Specker began photographing building facades and architecture in Berlin. The memory card held no more than 1 MB, and the resolution was extremely low, lower than the first cell phone images that would become a part of everyday life only a few years later. Specker was just about able to take ten shots before the card was full—and yet she was a pioneer of technology. Other art photographers who became internationally well known at the time, such as Andreas Gursky or Thomas Ruff, shot in analogue and scanned their images to rework them on the computer. It was the dawn of the digital revolution, and just how slow this dawn came about can be seen in the numbers: while in 1993 only 3% of the worldwide information storage capacity was digital, by 2007 it had gone up to 94%. At the time, Specker was working with the most up-to-date technology available. In large-scale prints, however, the Quicktake pictures dissolved into a blur of pixels. But Specker developed her own aesthetic from these limitations; she photographed modernist facades and architectural elements in the streets of Berlin, transforming the digitally reworked images of motifs such as the Hansaviertel or the aluminum honeycomb facade of the former Centrum department store on Alexanderplatz into blurry, almost painterly compositions. During the 1990s, the German capital was a field of experimentation in every possible sense. “Everyone was into electronic stuff. In my first electronic images, I made what the music inspired me to do,” recalled Specker later in a conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist. After moving to Berlin, she quickly became part of the scene that got together in clubs like E-Werk, Elektro, and Panasonic. She made all of E-Werk’s flyers in her design agency Moniteurs. “Elektro” became an attitude towards life. “The digital revolution was of course seen as a positive thing, it was considered an extremely liberating change,” says Specker. “No one could have dreamed up all this crazy stuff: NSA surveillance, the fact that your location can be tracked everywhere now, that you can’t live anymore without leaving behind a digital footprint.”

Specker photographed the surfaces of a city in which radical changes were taking place—and in which a deep sense of unease arose shortly after the Berlin Wall fell. As in the paintings of Eberhard Havekost, which he refers to as “user surfaces,” or later, as in the films of the Berlin School, urban architecture takes on a special role in Specker’s work. She is interested in facades that possess a certain physical presence and a volume that fills the image; images that are determined by a structural aesthetic. In contrast to the hectic pace of the time, her images convey the quietude of an early morning, when one could walk through the city and encounter nearly no one. The structures in her work, which become placeholders for new narrative forms, mirror modernist ideologies: functionalism, progress, and socialism. The fact that time, in the truest sense, is literally written out of focus in these images has something to do with utopia. The buildings and facades that Specker photographed are similar to the clubs that moved into empty factory buildings—she appropriated them and filled them with a new spirit. Yet at the same time, her pictures feel like transit spaces for identities that have become brittle and porous.

In contrast to Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies, Specker’s love of modernism is highly personal rather than analytical. She too organizes her photographs according to formal features, but responds subjectively to ornament and rhythm. Specker treats the outer shells of buildings as clothing and the buildings themselves as people who belong to a social framework. She titled her works in the Deutsche Bank Collection Speckergruppen (Specker Groups). Her photographic approach to the heroism of modernism has something guerilla-like about it in a formal sense, too. Specker doesn’t place blind trust in technology or progress, but takes her medium and the aesthetic of the buildings themselves to the limits: “The special thing about the Speckergruppen was that digital technology had never before been so clear in art. When photographers worked digitally, they concealed it by retouching—eliminating a tree, a window, a building. My images were an almost aggressive affirmation and disclosure of the technology; nothing was kept secret. In my photographs, I also showed diagonals in architecture, the lines of perspective distortion. In the Becher photographs, all the lines are straight. But to our perception, this seems crooked. If you look up at a high-rise building with a normal camera, then the lines become distended and the image is distorted. Perfectionism doesn’t exist.”

Today, 20 years later, Specker is a professor for photography at the Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst Leipzig. And she takes photographs of people. For some time now she has been working on a series of portraits of friends and acquaintances from her generation: artists, critics, curators. “There are hardly any pictures of people over 40 today that aren’t optimized in some way. Either they’ve optimized themselves surgically, or the portraits are optimized in post-production,” remarks Specker in reference to her most recent works. She shows people at very vulnerable moments, using only indirect flash and often in large, undefined spaces. The series she took of Okwui Enwezor for ArtMag portrays the director of the Haus der Kunst in Munich and artistic director of the Venice Biennale without the representational context and isolated in a neutral space, as an individual personality. Specker’s portraits appear casual, as though they not only left out the person’s social role, but also the photographer’s presence. They are amazing because they show every wrinkle and every irregularity in the ageing process, yet they are anything but ruthless. Instead, her images resemble a kind of existential search for traces.

The path from the first architectural photographs to the portraits seems long and complicated. Yet in the final analysis, the Speckergruppen were already the product of a search for history, social community, and utopian visions. Only a few years after gaining international attention for her early digital images, she left the blurriness behind. Technology, which now allowed hobby photographers to print their photographs billboard-size in razor-sharp focus, was no longer a theme of her work. Instead, Specker’s art took on an almost forensic dimension. The modernist architecture and interiors that she photographs also resemble crime scenes and fictional locations. Many of her projects feel like excursions into very personal interior worlds whose complexity can only be understood through suggestion and in segments.  

During a fellowship at the Villa Massimo in Rome in 2010, Specker created several series, among them Piazza di Spagna 31, several works of which are now a part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. Piazza di Spagna is the address of the apartment of one of the most famous Italian artists of the 20th century, the Surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. “I discovered these rooms by chance, and it was almost like finding a treasure,” recalls Specker. The apartment, today a private museum, served de Chirico as an exhibition and sales room. Starting in 1948, the artist spent the last thirty years of his life here together with his wife, Isabella Pakszwer Far, who lived in the apartment until her death in 1990. In 1998, it was elaborately reconstructed from old photographs.

Specker penetrates into this pseudo-authentic world, where traces of private life and the extremely refined stagings of Italian modernism can be found. Like the Italian designer, architect, and dandy Carlo Mollino (1905-1973), whose avant-garde furnished apartment Specker photographed the same year, de Chirico was a master of scenery and accouterments. In an almost surgical manner, Specker dissects the stories the place tells and those it conceals. “People say that de Chirico’s wife did nothing but lie in bed and devour one paperback novel after another. Of course, that’s sold as though everything had been in this really perfect state,” says Specker. “Actually, though, the apartment was also a tomb.” And indeed, in Specker’s reduced photographic narratives, funerary goods take on new roles: she depicts de Chirico’s miniature models of the “disquieting muses,” which can also be seen in his famous painting Le muse inquietanti (1917), in isolation, similarly to the people in her later photographs. In the series Piazza di Spagna 31, the figures become substitutes for the former inhabitants, the entire apartment an imaginary stage.

Specker’s series negotiate power relations. Similarly to how the “disquieting muses” can symbolize the tension in a love relationship, other photographs, for instance of a sagging spot on a couch, convey a touch of intimacy that we shouldn’t really be privy to. In a very quiet manner, Specker addresses the camera’s and visitor’s voyeuristic transgressions. At the same time, almost all of her series from the 2000s reflect this break between inner and outer perception, presence and absence, between the small, not-so-perfect stories and the myths these images generate. And she always exposes the vanitas aspect, the failure of the heroic, and the emergence of the human—in other words, the impossibility of perfection.