#

A graphic view of things

Absolute sharpness, reduction and strict rules determine the character of his pictures: Otl Aicher as photographer

Otl Aicher: Sumo school, probably Tokyo, around 1960. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Otl Aicher didn’t just design company logos and pictograms, he took photographs for decades too – breaking new ground again and again in the process. Trained in syntactic exercises, he extricated photography from art and established it as a medium of communication design.

On 20 June 1959, an exhibition entitled simply “Otl Aicher – Photos” opened in Ulm. Visitors to the showcase at Ulm Museum were confronted with black-and-white photographs showing snowy forests and winter landscapes, country lanes and streets, as well as industrial facilities, electricity pylons and bridges. In most cases, the pictures had been taken against an overcast sky. The geometric shapes and varied surface textures of the objects are specific to the different motifs. People, on the other hand, only make an appearance as extras – if at all.

The pictures are dominated by their deliberate lines, by pleasing proportions and strong light-dark contrasts. At the time, they were aptly described as “photographics”1, for their originator evidently knew how to handle his camera as precisely as a graphic designer uses a pencil.2 The photographer presenting himself to the public here was Otl Aicher (1922–1991), co-founder of Ulm School of Design, or the HfG for short, where he also worked as a lecturer in the Visual Communication department.3

Following in the traditions of progressive photography

The shots he had selected for the exhibition were a cross-section of his creative photographic works from the previous 10 years. Aicher, who came to design as an autodidact, had started with photography in the early 1950s too, just at the time when teaching started at the HfG. It was then that Aicher made the acquaintance of Walter Peterhans, a former Bauhaus master who had distinguished himself in the field of photography.4 In Ulm, Peterhans was responsible for the basic course – a kind of creative foundation course for the students – and Aicher had attended his classes and taken notes: “Flawless beauty”, he wrote in 1953, “likewise corresponds to our need for rationally comprehensible truth and our desire for order.”5 He continues: “Self-fulfilment […] does not lead to any goal, at most to conflict with the world.”6 Creative work, he writes, must spring from a foundation of objectivity, for which categories such as “rationalisation, repeatability, precision, variability, differentiation of the elements, the combination of equal parts, simplification”7 are characteristic.

If you look at Aicher’s photographs with this theoretical background in mind, it becomes clear what motivated him and what the intention behind his pictures was. The shot of a pile of stacked tyres, for instance (Fig. 1), illustrates the principles of repeatability and precision, as does the picture of the hayrick in an Alpine landscape (Fig. 2) or the avenue with white lines on the road (Fig. 3). The perfect photographic rendering of the surfaces of things, of their textures, structures and proportions, was what interested Aicher: the surfaces of rocks, plants and barren soils (Fig. 4), of zigzag roads, half-timbered houses and the struts of bridges (Fig. 5).

Fig. 2 Otl Aicher: Hayricks, around 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 225.1

Fig. 2 Otl Aicher: Hayricks, around 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 225.1

Fig. 4 Otl Aicher: Structures, 1950s. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 958.3

Fig. 5 Otl Aicher: Bridge, probably 1953. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 1358

Fig. 4 Otl Aicher: Structures, 1950s. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 958.3

Fig. 5 Otl Aicher: Bridge, probably 1953. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 1358

Absolute sharpness, simplification and reduction determine the character of these pictures – nothing is meant to distract from the object of focus. Aicher thus no longer saw photography as an act of art or impulse, but as the result of deliberate creative considerations. His graphic view of the world is particularly striking in the pictures of snow-covered landscapes: the snow calms the scenes and makes the trees, fields and tracks stand out more prominently (Fig. 6).The idea behind these pictures was to “showcase the visual grammar of the landscape”.8 The motif of snowy trees in the forest, for instance, demonstrates the vocabulary of his photographic language in the outstanding perfection of the vertical lines, the sharpness of the background and the light-dark contrasts (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7 Otl Aicher: Forest in the snow, probably 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 434

Fig. 7 Otl Aicher: Forest in the snow, probably 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 434

Early on, the curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Mildred Constantine, recognised the quality of these “tree photographs”9: after all, they featured a subject that had already shown up in the work of Albert Renger-Patzsch, one of the most notable exponents of New Objectivity, in the interwar period.10 The work of the young photographer Aicher can likewise be attributed to this movement of progressive photographers, for whom properties of form such as “absolute faithfulness to the subject, precise lighting of the objects or attention to detail” are characteristic.11 But Aicher’s pictures are closely related to those of the progressive photography of the 1920s and 1930s in terms of their subject matter too: pylons and isolators, for instance (Fig. 8) can already be found in the work of Renger-Patzsch and Ilse Bing, while grasses reflected in water (Fig. 9) or the topography of Monk and Nun roof tiles (Fig. 10) feature in photographs by Elsa Thiemann.

Fig 9 Otl Aicher: Viaduct, 1950s. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 1359

Fig. 10 Otl Aicher: Flooded field, probably 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 701.3

Fig 9 Otl Aicher: Viaduct, 1950s. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 1359

Fig. 10 Otl Aicher: Flooded field, probably 1957. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 701.3

It is no longer possible to ascertain whether Aicher knew these pictures, but what he has in common with the exponents of New Objectivity is his open-mindedness towards the visual world and the photographic quest for the essence of things. However, Aicher also wanted to distance his work from certain positions in the history of photography: he had just as little use for unusual perspectives, like the fisheye or low-angle shots of Umbo or Alexander Rodchenko, as he did for the photograms and other “darkroom tricks”12 of Man Ray or László Moholy-Nagy – their works were too artificial for Aicher’s liking.13

The discovery of photographic information

Nevertheless, Aicher’s photographs were often unspecific and decontextualised too: the aesthetic value of the images was often stronger than the information inherent in the photography. Later, Aicher candidly admitted that his black-and-white pictures had “virtually no documentary content”.14 Aicher was increasingly discovering photography’s potential for communication; therefore, soon after the exhibition at Ulm Museum, he broke with the approaches he had deployed up until then: Aicher found himself in a “dilemma”15 with his pictures when he realised that his photography had become “l’art pour l’art”16 – art for art’s sake.

To avoid the risk of his work turning into a photographic end in itself, he stopped looking for structures and graphic forms in his surroundings and turned to reportage and life photography. He looked to names that are generally associated with the Magnum photo agency for orientation: Werner Bischof, Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Thomas Höpker.17 Instead of Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 book Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful) or Roh’s 1929 publication Foto-Auge (Photo-Eye), his new role model was the kind of photography seen in the magazines Life (after the 1936 relaunch) and Paris Match (from 1949).

Aicher tried his hand at this genre too. In the late 1950s a fundamental change can be seen in Aicher’s photographic interest. Whereas his early pictures were depopulated, cool and always a little distanced, the focus is now on the human protagonists and their story, as a snapshot of a nun with schoolchildren at a lake in northern Italy reveals (Fig. 11). Notably, Aicher not only changed genres but started using colour film from now on as well. A photographic statement can be attributed to this step: black-and-white abstracts and alienates, whereas a colour photograph permits a more realistic interpretation of the moment.

Fig 11 Otl Aicher: Nun with schoolchildren, undated. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm. HfG-Arch Ai F 1142

Travelling with his medium-format camera in his luggage, he was able to capture vivid images well beyond his hometown in southwest Germany. The portraits taken at a Japanese sumo school, for instance (Fig. 12), or those of the three women he encountered on an evening in New York (Fig. 13), show just how much empathy Aicher brought to his reportage photography. After the inferior colour films he had used for a reportage in Rio de Janeiro resulted in failure, however, he stopped taking this type of photograph again very quickly. Nevertheless, in his future creative work he was able to draw on his experiences as a photographer time and time again.

Fig. 13 Otl Aicher: Three women, probably New York, 1958. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Fig. 13 Otl Aicher: Three women, probably New York, 1958. © Florian Aicher Rotis, HfG-Archiv / Museum Ulm

Photography in communication design

Whether he was working on the visual identity of Lufthansa or that of the Olympic Games: in his later career, Aicher made consistent and successful use of photography as a key medium. Unlike the airline’s competitors in the aviation industry, Aicher turned the flying experience into the theme of the Lufthansa campaigns by using aerial photographs. And unlike what had been done for previous Olympic Games, Aicher committed Munich 1972 to the power of colour photography, in which he had found an appropriate medium for translating the idea behind the “Rainbow Games” into reality with powerful effect. He also used colour photography to liberate the city of Munich’s tourist advertising from the illustrations and black-and-white images that were still widespread at the time, thereby helping city branding to adopt a new, contemporary form of expression.

Aicher’s interest in photography also had a direct affect on his graphic design: when he was creating the visual identity of the town of Isny in the early 1980s and developing numerous pictograms for it, the content they conveyed would not have been possible without his early photography: the ability to reduce the pictorial elements and the precise articulation of an informative and recognisable message were only possible thanks to his well-trained eye (Fig. 14 + 15).

Fig. 15 Otl Aicher: Das Allgäu (bei Isny) in: Katharina Adler (words), Otl Aicher

Fig. 15 Otl Aicher: Das Allgäu (bei Isny) in: Katharina Adler (words), Otl Aicher

Photography needs rules

In his last book, die welt als entwurf (The World as Design) from 1991, Aicher defined the criteria for the use of photography in communication design, using the ERCO lighting company as an example. These criteria can be seen as the quintessence of his decades-long involvement with the medium. He states that a photograph can only be “credible” if the photographer holds back their ambitions and the picture doesn’t try to be art.18 It should not alienate and must be accurate by capturing the moment and making the processes behind it visible.19

This is the consolidation of what Aicher had learned from Peterhans as a young man and, later on, through his experiences with reportage photography. His attitude could be summarised thus: a successful photograph needs rules and is therefore the result of conscious seeing.

But how did Aicher himself regard his photographic works? In his later years, when he was compiling a catalogue of all his architectural, graphic and typographic designs, he placed his black-and-white photographs from the 1950s at the front of it too – he was evidently aware of their significance for his entire body of work.20

Time and time again, he found new ways of approaching the medium and, thanks to this sensitivity, succeeded in enhancing photography’s importance in communication design. The desire for his work to provide information and clarity is the thread that runs throughout his biography as a designer. Seeing, wrote Aicher, is “a cultural accomplishment”.21 His photographs testify to that to this day.

Linus Rapp is a historian. He studied history and art history at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich and wrote his doctorate at Folkwang University in Essen on exhibition design at HfG Ulm. His numerous publications on the history of photography include Der ordnungsstiftende Blick. Otl Aicher und die Fotografie im Kommunikationsdesign, Fotogeschichte magazine, No. 152, 2019.

Notes

  1. Eugen Gomringer: ‘Fotos von Otl Aicher’, in: werk und zeit (5) 1958, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 2252.
  2. Aicher initially worked with a small-format camera before switching to a medium-format camera in the mid-1950s, which permitted a higher reproduction ratio and more depth of field. For his exhibition at Ulm Museum, he used a standard format of 95x125cm. The photographs were mounted on thin hardboard, unframed, and hung in continuous rows.
  3. Cf. Eva Moser: otl aicher – gestalter. Ostfildern 2012. Cf. Inka Graeve: ‘Vom Wesen der Dinge. Zu Leben und Werk Walter Peterhans’, in: Ute Eskildsen, ead. (Ed.): Walter Peterhans. Fotografien 1927–1938. Exh. cat. Essen 1993, p. 6–22.
  4. Otl Aicher: notes from foundation course taught by Walter Peterhans, Ai AZ 2433.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Otl Aicher: lecture, Weingarten 1976, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 83.1.
  8. William Huff to Inge Aicher-Scholl, 30.05.1958, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 2545.
  9. On photography of the 1920s: Kristina Lehmke: ‘Neu Sehen. Die Fotografie der 20er und 30er Jahre’, in: ead. (Ed): Neu Sehen. Exh. cat. Bielefeld/Berlin 2021, p. 16–25.
  10. Agnes Matthias: ‘Fotografie und Bauhaus’, in: Manfred Hartmann: Neues Sehen – Neue Sachlichkeit. Fotografische Positionen in Westfalen vom Bauhaus bis heute’. Exh. cat. Münster 2019, p. 9–18, p. 17.
  11. Christian Staub: note, in: ulm 3. (1959), p. 46.
  12. Otl Aicher: die welt als entwurf. Berlin 1991, p. 94.
  13. Otl Aicher: lecture, Weingarten 1976, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 83.1.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Otl Aicher: die welt als entwurf. Berlin 1991, p. 169.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Cf. Otl Aicher: self-presentation, between 1980–1990, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 629.
  20. Otl Aicher: lecture, Weingarten 1976, in: HfG-Arch Ai AZ 83.1.