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Generative Art Summit Berlin

Photo: Ursel Jaeger



“I came across Herbert W. Franke’s book “Kunst und Konstruktion – Physik und Mathematik als fotografisches Experiment” (Munich 1957) as a new publication towards the end of my photographic engineering studies in Cologne. It did not establish photography as an art form with its recognized image-taking qualities. Rather, it was based on its image-giving properties, its latent generative potentials! This approach was new – and not without controversy! But it was precisely this approach that established our lifelong friendship and collaboration with numerous highlights. One example of this is the book we wrote together, “Apparative Kunst – Vom Kaleidoskop zum Computer” (machine art – from caleidoscope to computer, Munich 1973), which attracted international attention. However, it was only sixty years after the publication of my first contact with Herbert that I asked him to sign my personal copy, participating at a conference at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in February 2017. Then we had a Coke.”

Since the early 1960s, Gottfried Jäger has been working in the field of “abstract” photography. He regards the photographic process not only as a medium for conveying external conditions, but as an artistic object in its own right. With this approach, he is the forerunner of a new generation of photographic artists such as James Welling, Walid Beshty, Liz Deschenes, Marco Breuer and others. In over fifty years of visual practice, his name has become one of the best known in German photographic art. In 2014, he received the Culture Prize of the German Society for Photography, like Stephen Shore (2010), Wolfgang Tillmans (2009), Ed Ruscha (2006), David Hockney (1997) before him. The prize also recognised his academic achievements as a photo theorist and photo historian.

His works are “photographs of photography” (Stiegler) – the result of a search for the hidden image in the photographic universe. In the process, his own image orders emerge, which are reflected in partly logical, partly random series of images – comparable to experimental investigations in a scientific laboratory. These include “Gradations” (1983), made visible through the photographic black-and-white material, and “Chromogenic Series” (from 1980). With his “Mosaics”, Jäger succeeded in the 1990s in connecting and transitioning to computer-related works. He calls them “snapshots”: snapshots from the data network. They are not created “of their own free will” in a single creative moment, but on the basis of earlier, photo-generated works and programmes. Jäger shows that each technique generates its own visibility. His series reflect the logic of the apparatus and the controlled and repeatable process of finding and creating images.

With this approach, Gottfried Jäger participated in the activities of the first generation of early computer art and its manifestations: for example, in “Experiments in Art and Technology”, Brooklyn Museum, New York, 1968, in “New Tendencies”, Zagreb, 1969 and worldwide in “Wege zur Computerkunst”, 1970-1976, curated by Herbert W. Franke. His work also unfolds in connection with other disciplines of the “concrete” arts. Thus with concrete music in the “Playing Strategies” of the 1960s, together with Karl Martin Holzhäuser and Walter Steffen (music); so also with concrete poetry through his light graphics to the text “Roman” by Helmut Heißenbüttel, 1963. His closeness to concrete visual art is shown in the collection “Concrete Art in Europe after 1945” in the Museum im Kulturspeicher Würzburg and its catalogues from 2002. Gottfried Jäger has also devoted himself to the formation of concepts. This becomes clear in his book “Abstrakte, konkrete und generative Fotografie”, edited by Bernd Stiegler. It is one of more than thirty books from his think tank, such as: “The Art of Abstract Photography” (2002), “Can photography Capture our Time in Images? A Time-Critical Balance” (2004), “Concrete Photography” (2005) and “Light Image and Data Image: Traces of Concrete Photography” (2015). Numerous international exhibitions mark Gottfried Jäger’s artistic path, as do his works in important museums and collections.

Do you remember how you came across the book Art and Construction by Herbert W. Franke?
It was in the last weeks of my photography engineering studies at the State College of Photography in Cologne, in 1960, when I discovered the book by chance in the library of the university – and at that I took possession of it. I was particularly taken with its subtitle: Physics and Mathematics as a Photographic Experiment, it was called. And that seemed to me to be a possible approach to the art of my subject: a scientifically and rationally based bridge to the phenomenon of art (to refer here to another well-known book title of Franke’s: The Scientific Foundations of Aesthetics (Munich 1967).
Thus, the first book opened up an immediate, even practically possible access to art, more obvious than metaphysical and irrational attempts to explain this phenomenon. After all, I had learned my photography as a craft and studied it as an engineer. In this respect, the art of photography was an unknown, ‘sublime’ terrain for me at that time, a terra incognita, so to speak, tempting, but also foreign. And HWF’s writings were an ideal bridge to that. They spoke my language in their attempt at explanation, not transfiguration, of a tempting field – that of the visual arts.

What role did Herbert play in your life?
That’s why I later sought not only mental but also personal contact with my role model. During the summer vacation with the family at Lake Constance in 1965, I plucked up the courage and invited myself by phone to HWF to visit him in the south of Munich. I set off at dawn, and it turned out to be an intense day of mutual exchange, the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

How did you get into generative photography?
Through Max Bense and the last chapter of his book Aesthetica – Introduction to the New Aesthetics (Baden-Baden 1965). Under the heading: “Projects of Generative Aesthetics” he had summarized his idea of an aesthetics of production (as opposed to an aesthetics of interpretation) as follows:
“It enables the methodical generation of aesthetic states by breaking down this generation into a finitely large number of distinguishable and describable individual steps.” (p. 336). 
This was now a language that I understood and could comprehend as a craftsman and engineer. I could relate to its terms. On this basis, it was also possible to realize and justify one’s own artistic ideas. These sentences formed my bridge to art. And so I was able to tackle and advocate my own attempts in the field – without being able to refer to a proper art degree.
By the way, my friend Hein Gravenhorst had drawn my attention to “Bense”. I collaborated with him on the first exhibition entitled Generative Photographie at the Kunsthaus Bielefeld in 1968. To this end, we visited the Belgian Pierre Cordier (1933-2024) in La Hulpe, and I got in touch with Kilian Breier (1931-2011), back then a photography teacher in Darmstadt. Together with our theoretical head HWF, a group of like-minded people for a new, contemporary impulse of artistic-experimental photography was created. We founded the collaboration with the aforementioned exhibition Generative Photographie. It was followed seven years later by the book of the same name with a foreword by Herbert W. Franke (Ravensburg 1975). I worked together with my friend and colleague at Bielefeld University of Applied Sciences, Karl Martin Holzhäuser. Worth mentioning, so to speak, is the book Apparative Kunst – Vom Kaleidoskop zum Computer (Cologne 1973), written together with Herbert Franke. It also attracted international attention and sparked numerous comments.

What is the “essence” of generative photography for you?
It is based on a rational approach to the creation of a contemporary, modern and technically based art production – and in particular on the exploration of latent, image-creative, even generative potentials that are still hidden in the photographic process. And this is quite independent of the representational obligations of traditional photographic history, i.e. of its documentary and realistic ambitions. In this way, generative photography turns the photographic process itself into an object – and in doing so, condenses its possibilities resting within it into an image of our time – i.e. our ones at that time back then! At least that’s what we thought.

Do you have a different view of generative photography today than you did in the 1960s?
Of course, with its theoretically as well as practically visible statements, I regard it today historically, as a contemporary and art-historical phenomenon. An abstract pictorial history of her era, in other words. Their signs, which were visible at the time, pointed to a completely different, innovative approach to the photographic process. It was not about visualization, illustration, but about visibility and direct observation. In this respect, generative photography can be understood as a signpost to a present in which these visual territories are increasingly blurring and merging into each other. Generative AI (artificial intelligence) is a current and illustrative example of this. At this point, it is certainly worth mentioning the history of the term ‘generative’ in linguistics (Chomsky) and aesthetics (Bense) – long before we put it in the context of our photographic art in 1968 and before it is gaining new relevance today, more than half a century later.

How did you see the tension between generative photography and traditional art back then – and now?
We saw in our project a kind of distancing movement from the traditional photo; we saw ourselves as initiators and practitioners of an experiment with an unknown outcome. But in this respect, also as pioneers. With a certain scientific-oriented style, namely the serial and step-by-step approach, with the repetition of changing parameters, just like in a scientific experiment. Our common goal was to partially expand the photographic process, to understand and show it no longer only as a reproducing medium, but as a producing artistic-creative impulse.
Generative photography was born out of these thoughts. With a wide variety of approaches, whereby we saw ourselves as protagonists and examples for a practice that goes far beyond that. And Herbert W. Franke was our inspirer and theoretical head.

You haven’t worked with the computer for a long time. How and when did you come up with the computer as a design tool for your own work?
Back in the 1990s, we were waiting for the computer! From photokina to photokina (Cologne Trade Fair). And so, in retrospect, the rational, step-by-step approach as well as the analytical and synthetic programming of the photo process seem to me like an anticipation of the computer as an instrumental tool. And when it finally stood there – it didn’t just remain a means and tool, but quickly became a partner and a creative impulse generator – to see what pushes to the surface from its hidden, its latent pictorial potential. No longer through light and light-sensitive material, but through digital data and programs.

What does it mean to you today to work with a camera or computer? Are there different fields of application?
I use both appropriately, both generatively and fabricatively.

Have you also dealt with the developments in computer art? If so, do you have an opinion on crypto art and the  latest AI art?
The terms mentioned refer to new fields of theory and action. They are emerging right now and permanently. In doing so, I am less and less able to follow them accordingly. I am encountering a historic moment of generative, new creative possibilities.
In the mid-1990s, I began to work with computer-aided techniques, step by step, and on the basis of photographic constructions that had been designed up to that point. The transition from an analog to a digital subject alone opened up new possibilities for finding images. The steps taken in this process can be seen in the catalog of my last major exhibition Fotografien der Fotografie. Imaging Systems 1960-2020 (Hanover, Wurzburg, 2023). There I cite the traditional process as well as the outlook on the new conditions.

How do you see the tension between artist – creator – artificial intelligence?
The questions arise anew. Nowadays is different from our time. The history of photography provides an example of the expansion and role reversal of a global medium, of a visual language from document to invention with its innumerable differentiated approaches and modes of use, let us think of the “decisive moment” of political photo reportage. But also the selfie movement with its playful and narcissistic scenes. The photograph is a universal, wonderfully changeable medium – and also an autonomous, self-establishing art form, a subject that is constantly renewing itself.

Finally: Do you have any “recommendations” for young artists on what they should look out for?
From my perspective, this can only be a traditional judgement with the advice to study the historical steps of the whole process, its depictive and generative qualities, and to refer to them, and yet to take new steps out of them. The traditional methods can provide support and help.