Desktop version

Home arrow Travel

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

In order of disappearance: photography, measurement, and art historical practice in nineteenth-century Germany

Sara Hillnhuetter

In 1907, at the Eighth International Congress of Art Historians in Darmstadt, Paul Clemen remarked: “German art history lacks usable photographic records to a shameful extent [...]”? During the congress, Aby Warburg proposed the establishment of an information office for photographs that would be accessible by telephone, like the existing library service for books: “[...] It would then be in every photographer’s own interest to submit details of his work”.2 The discussion ended with the assembly’s motion for the establishment, as soon as possible, of a “centre for the inventory of all available photographic aids”.3

A photo-collection that already existed in the year of the congress was the Royal Prussian Institute of Photogrammetry, established by Albrecht Meydenbauer, which had been collecting pictorial material relating to historical buildings for 22 years by then. But in the aforementioned discussion, Paul Clemen observed:

The photographs collected by Meydenbauer are too large and too expensive; they apply almost exclusively to the architecture and—true to their original character as images for measurement—usually only portray individual components without addressing the overall effect of the image. [.. ,]4

Several colleagues contradicted Clemen’s assessment; they included Adolph Goldschmidt, who proposed offering expert advice to the Institute:

The architectural photographs in the Prussian Institute comply with the art-historical requirements in excellent fashion through good spatial perspectives and the sharp focus of the details. For art history, it would now be very desirable that the Institute of Photogrammetry add to its collection of Prussian objects the art-historically important buildings in the rest of Germany, in co-operation with representatives, who, firstly, would help to select the historically important monuments and their significant details and, secondly, combine their historical work with that of the Institute.5

In addition to selecting the monuments, the discussions of the “photographic aids” repeatedly also featured their media specificity, which Clemen addressed with “pictorial effect”, while Goldschmidt spoke of “spatial perspective”. Seen in this way, architecture was a special case, because it shaped space itself and, in its size, always exceeded the visual field of the camera. The human handling should disappear in the images, to depict buildings simply for the measurement purpose. Therefore the objects appeared autonomous from their city context or human viewing conditions, but the “correct” way of photographing a building seemed unclear and interfered with the conditions of human visual judgment by the materiality of photography. This question was mainly represented in the discussion by the representation of perspective within photography. The following text is lead by the question, how much perspective is mechanically reproduced by a photo camera.

One much-discussed essay from 1896, which also questioned the photographic appearance of art, is the one published by Heinrich Wolfflin, Wie man Skulpturen aufneh-men soil (How to Photograph Sculptures). He compared illustrations of Verrocchio’s David which portrayed the statue in completely different ways. The portrayals of the head puzzled him, because in photographs, the sculpture, with which he was familiar, gave the impression that David’s head was haughtily pointed upward. Therefore, Wolfflin asked himself the rhetorical question “[...] are our photographs right to portray the head as held high?”6 He immediately answered it with a “no”. His essay was aimed at stimulating a debate about how photography, which he felt was based on its perspective characteristics, portrayed things. “A few samples will quickly put the lay-man right about such Wunder der Perspektive (Miracles of Perspective)”? Wolfflin was unable to agree with the idea of an image being immediate or even objective because it was created using a machine; in fact, he interpreted the optical features of the device as interference, within their own independent morphology. In his attempt to formulate a convention for architectural depiction, which also allowed for the need to measure, Albrecht Meydenbauer, the founder of the Prussian Institute of Photogrammetry, laid down conditions: As it was common in early reception of photography, he contrasted as paragons of media whose competition he saw as decided in favor of mechanical imagery. In the process, his pictorial practice provides concrete correspondences and deviations between the mathematical systematics of perspective and the physically complex light-based picture, with which Meydenbauer, as if in passing, formulated a morphology for the space transposed. Using Albrecht Meydenbauer’s writing, it is fair to ask, like Wolfflin, under which conditions photographic images function as aid or how they interfere in art historical judgment.

Beginnings of the Royal Prussian Institute of Photogrammetry

In his diary, Meydenbauer illustrated his idea for the invention of photogrammetry with an anecdote: just before his exams, he worked in conventional architectural surveying. Meydenbauer wanted to save time and money while working on the Cathedral in Wetzlar. Instead of scaffolding, he used a gondola, which he raised and lowered using a pulley. When he nearly fell as he worked from the gondola, he got the idea, as he later wrote, to develop a form of architectural measurement that no longer required climbing to make records.8

Indeed, doing the work at a desk had its advantages, because it could be performed from a safe distance. The architect, according to Meydenbauer, “[...] can make out the smallest construction element more clearly under the magnifying glass than he could if he risked his life trying to climb up to the most inaccessible places”.9 The aim of Meydenbauer’s pictorial practice was to portray historical monuments in their entirety, so that they could be restored if needed or, even in the event of their destruction, recorded in images. Thus, retrospective and prospective processes were combined in the photographs, which were simultaneously a portrayal of the existing building and blueprint for its reconstruction.

His focus was not just on tackling adverse weather conditions and the danger of misperception but also on minimizing the interference by the photographic camera. For translating photographs into drawn lines was no trivial task. The light recorded on the photographic plate indeed surrounded the object but it was fixed in the materiality of the camera. Irregularities in the image could equally be attributed to the object or its optical representation. With his subsequent essay, On the Use of Photography for the Documentation of Architecture and Terrain,10 Meydenbauer attracted the attention of the military in particular and won a commission to take initial trial photographs at the expense of the war ministry.

Finally, during his appointment as university architect at Marburg, which began in 1879, Meydenbauer was able to make contact with the Prussian Culture Minister, Gustav von Gossler. On April 01, 1885, the parliament in Berlin approved the establishment of the Royal Prussian Institute of Photogrammetry.

Diminishing complexity

Meydenbauer wrote down further photographic principles for a good survey photograph in a handbook published for the first time in 1892 and published in an amended form again in 1912. In the course of his research, he strove to combine the measuring devices and the photographic camera into a “unified organism”.11 He, having learnt perspective drawing during his architecture and engineering studies, approached photography with the aim of generating ground and vertical plans.

For his first evaluation of the survey photography, Meydenbauer defined a system of coordinates whose axes formed the horizon of the image and the main vertical line.12 In order to maintain the ratios, the camera had to maintain the following technical constants: a mechanical frame defined the distance between lens and image area (photographic plate). A fixed tripod allowed the camera to be aligned horizontally with the ground, whereby the tilting was supposed to be equal to zero. By aligning the camera with the symmetrical axes of the architecture, the pictures could be evaluated with projective geometry and a floor plan and elevation drawn. One actual measurement on site was necessary in order to calculate volumes from the photograph using trigonometry.13

The pictures of Cologne Cathedral from 1889 provide an example of the characteristics of a survey photograph (Figure 4.1). With the sun low in the morning, the photographer was able to achieve an even spread of light with low contrast, in order to portray the various elements of the Gothic cathedral in all their fine details, down to the last crab or giant. Clouds in the sky would dissipate the light, eliminating stark contrasts or interfering shadows. The symmetrical axes of the building are taken up by the picture’s composition. Hence, the vertical center of the image is formed by the nave of the church building. The center of the lens is pointed at the frieze that joins the walls of the transept with the roof. The dome looms massively from the urban context.

In technical terms, the photograph was adapted to the appearance of perspective drawing. The surrounding rows of houses appear like models, devoid of human beings. Sometimes they were even retouched. In this picture stays a single coachman at the end of the left-hand row of houses, who appears to be waiting for his customers. In order to achieve a high depth of focus, the smallest possible shutter was used. Due to the lengthy exposure time, the camera did not record the moving figures. Therefore,

Preußische Meßbild-Anstalt, Dome in Colone, 1889, photographic print from 40 x 40 cm negative plate, album 79

Figure 4.1 Preußische Meßbild-Anstalt, Dome in Colone, 1889, photographic print from 40 x 40 cm negative plate, album 79 (27) “Dom in Köln, Äusseres 1”, figure 1, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek - Sammlung Fotografie.

people are usually only to be seen when they were watching the photographer at work, or performing different tasks fitting the camera’s apparatus, like military or other services carried out in public space who fitted the dispositive of the camera.

Because of the technical parameters applied in the survey images, the photograph achieved a high level of transparency, in which the picture’s materiality had to disappear. Body schemes automatically transmitted by human handling were consciously diminished to let the abstraction in lines and geometrical forms of the dome appear on the camera.

The photographer probably chose a vantage point on a roof that would allow him a rare frontal view of the 157-m-high building, so that he did not have to adjust the lens vertically but could align the center of the opulent building with the optical center of the lens. The spatial mass of the cathedral, which, to the viewer walking around it, appeared to reach for the sky, seems figurative, almost tangible in the picture. To avoid having to tilt the camera, Meydenbauer, although no longer having to climb around the building, was often obliged to adapt his choice of vantage point to the object’s urban location, which often took him or his employees into the air onto buildings around the object of question. This has the effect of making the depicted objects seem alienated from their urban context and autonomous, as transported by

Photography, measurement, and art historical practice in Germany 61 a photographic view that was closer to the view of the planning architect and his or her illustration on the desk than to the actual sandstone building that had been constructed over centuries. What the pictures did not show, however, was the experience of a visitor walking through the cathedral, who seems tiny in the context of the huge building. This phenomenological aspect, which changes the building decisively for art observation purposes, was presumably the reason for the skepticism shown at the art historical congress regarding the usefulness of these photographic shots.

The rule of elevation in photography

The transition from the geometrical system of perspective to the physically fixed medium of photography can also be seen in Meydenbauer’s pictorial practices by way of the term elevation, which describes the distance between the center of the lens and the horizon (Figure 4.2). The further the center of the lens was from the horizontal line on the object, the clearer the distortions to the object, since an optical lens always refracts the light in the center. Therefore, Meydenbauer determined that the distance between the middle of the lens and the approximate horizontal line of the object should not exceed 10 cm. This was an instruction to all photographers at

Albrecht Meydenbauer, exhibition plate, Internationale Photographische Ausstellung Dresden 1909, Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Messbildarchiv, inventory number 27 i 2/ Z.V.3a-4a

Figure 4.2 Albrecht Meydenbauer, exhibition plate, Internationale Photographische Ausstellung Dresden 1909, Brandenburgisches Landesamt für Denkmalpflege, Messbildarchiv, inventory number 27 i 2/ Z.V.3a-4a.

the Institute of Photogrammetry aimed at guaranteeing that the light projected into the camera amounted to a graphic perspective within it; that the camera’s vanishing point, namely, the focal point, should be at the edges of the visible circle or on a horizontal line on the object. For, in contrast to a graphic perspective, focal point and horizon in photography were independent of one another. Hence the difference between the morphology of the graphically and the photographically portrayed object.

In contrast, for example, to meteorologists, Meydenbauer was dealing with an object that emerged from a process of graphic drafts that already displayed basic geometric patterns.14 Meydenbauer reported triumphantly on the possibility of correcting errors made prior to the act of photography when evaluating the survey picture. “The correct survey picture is right whenever doubt arises!”15 By laying down parameters for numerous everyday phenomena, especially in architecture, it also became possible to reduce contingent process images to measureable elements. By “right angle”, he means the right angle that was used as a stencil to guarantee the stability of architecture in general. Meydenbauer parametrized the shapes of photography parallel to those of built objects so that both received continuity and the unseen could be measured retrospectively.

In research literature, comparisons of graphic perspective and photography were often used to describe a historical development in the portrayal of space and the structure behind it. Hubert Damisch, for example, noted that the lens of the camera “does justice to a very familiar but also very old system of spatial construction [...], to which photography has given a new topicality, despite its age”.16 Here, Damisch describes the perspective arrangement of picture, observer, and object as something that is taken further by the photographic process. The continuity between perspective routine actions and photographic techniques is mainly formulated with regard to its social effect, in other words, with regard to its operational status and the hence altered status of representativeness in the sense of criticism of the ideology behind the routine or technique. Albrecht Meydenbauer’s measuring procedure provided a coincidence of operation and image that must be critiqued in its own historical context. In purely formal terms, the elements that offer continuity between systemic space and optically visible space, namely, focal point and horizon, had to be described and modified first. This allowed photographed objects to be quantified. Meydenbauer described photography as “an inexhaustible source of unadulterated pictorial material”.1' He saw its advantages over manual drawing in the orientation toward the object, since, instead of “individually influenced drawings” which compromised the appearance of the building, photogrammetry represented a “return to the original". In comparison to architectural drawings, which “showed serious discrepancies when compared to the original”, he argued that the photographic recording heightened the presence of the object.

The phenomenon of architecture was also changed qualitatively in photogrammetry, through the aforementioned work at the desk. In order to comprehensively capture the impression of the building, Meydenbauer compiled an album at the end of every measuring project.

As I mentioned, the photograph are arranged so that they represent a tour of the outside and inside of the building. They include numerous views that the average visitor would never see and of which the local has no idea. The advantages of

Photography, measurement, and art historical practice in Germany 63 photographs becomes most pronounced here. One notices things of whose exist-19

ence even experts were unaware.

It is important to note here that the album did not replace the building; rather, how it was experienced changed.

Human disappearing

By informing himself about the object Meydenbauer eliminated those elements of the picture that might be reminiscent of the physiological sight of the observer, such as the curvature of sight or the relationship between hand and eye, which the corporality of the photographer, determined the morphology of the object. While, in his diary, Meydenbauer still spoke of perspective sight, when using the equipment he differentiated between physiological sight, perspective, and an optical device while he developed his procedure. The adaptation of photography to the parameters of perspective drawing resulted in photography being de-subjectified in a way. Hence, photogrammetry seemed removed from the urban context or even from its own materiality (Figure 4.3).

The technical systemization of the optical elements when taking photographs was the decisive turning point. It represented an innovation in documentary and art

Preußische Meßbild-Anstalt, Dome in Cologne, 1889, photographic print from 40 x 40 cm negative plate, album 79

Figure 4.3 Preußische Meßbild-Anstalt, Dome in Cologne, 1889, photographic print from 40 x 40 cm negative plate, album 79 (27) “Dom in Köln, Äusseres 1”, figure 2, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstbibliothek—Sammlung Fotografie.

photography, and yet did not claim to be a form of art photography. In Meydenbauer’s pictorial practice, photography attained a high level of transparency, for where slab, lens, or paper were invisible. Meydenbauer describes the architectural room layout recorded in the image as the central aesthetic element of his photographs, one that is also technically intrinsic:

This “something” is the exhaustive replication of the building in the form of a truly even perspective, which, while it does not entirely replace the need to view the building in situ, does so to a great extent, in a way even improving on it[.]20

By adjusting photography to a flat perpendicular perspective Meydenbauer reduced the phenomenological viewpoint to the geometrical zero of light-projection. He judged the accuracy of an image by its relation to the object. The only adjustment for the observer that he formulated in his guidelines concerned the selection of the lens. He said the photographic image resembled sight but seemed “wrong” as soon as the optical edges of the lens were visible in the picture. “The legs, namely from the knee down, appear disproportionately long and grow monstrously [...]”. By using a lens that would produce as straight an image as possible, Meydenbauer aimed to compensate for the distortion that normal sight corrected through eye movement. “Our eye tackles this distortion by moving the optical axis horizontally and if that is not sufficient, by unconsciously turning the entire head”.22 From this observation, he drew a formal consequence for his pictorial practice—that the horizon should be below the optical center of the lens. “The pictures appear more natural, which already eliminates one kind of presumed inaccuracy attributed to photography”.23

In his publication marking the twentieth anniversary of the Institute of Photogrammetry, Meydenbauer describes this deliberate consideration of the subsequent observer as the reason for people’s interest in photogrammetry.24

“That photogrammetry can have an aesthetic value by itself can be seen in the interest with which not only architects but also all kinds of artists, archaeologists and art-loving lay-people in acquiring and collecting good photographs of historical buildings.”25

Meydenbauer focused his camera technique not just on the building but also tried to apply his technique to achieving as natural an image as possible for the observer by making the focal width similar to the visual range of human sight. He emphasized the importance of this adjustment so that “an image can appear correct to the eye”.26

By taking into account the visual range, “[Photography] acquires life in a certain way, which quite considerably increases the value of the image”.27

Heinrich Klotz, too like some colleagues at the Congress of Art Historians, whose task after the establishment of the Deutscher Kunstverlag in 1921 was to make the images of the former Prussian Institute of Photogrammetry (form 1921 on named State Picture Archive, Staatliche Bildstelle), commercially useful, put up stiff resistance to the use of the images. He edited the magazine architectlira, which appeared from 1971, and used the opportunity to include an article On the Illustration of Architecture in the first edition, explaining why he did not wish to use Meydenbauer’s survey photographs. In his opinion, the lack of human beings falsified the effect of the architecture: “They show buildings in a form nobody has ever seen, as if they were

Heinrich Klotz, St. Peter in Rom, in

Figure 4.4 Heinrich Klotz, St. Peter in Rom, in: architecture, vol. 1, no. 1 (1971): 1.

behind glass”.28 Klotz mainly criticizes the lack of a scale figure, which was replaced in photogrammetry by the dimensions measured by the camera.

With the complete systemization of the image space, in which he mainly adapted the camera to the schemata of the objects, his argumentation in favor of the angle that appears correct to the human being seems surprising. By selecting a lens that corresponded to visual proportions, Meydenbauer appears loath to withdraw the photographed objects from the human observer and his body experience. The debate about whether architectural photography represented the space “correctly” or “unnaturally” focuses therefore on the human sense of space and geometric portrayal. The approach to photography demands, especially with regard to scientific practice in the nineteenth century, a new evaluation of perspective doctrine in which continuities and breaches can be found between drawing and photography (Figure 4.4).


  • 1 I thank Steffen Haug for his advice; Paul Clemen is quoted from Offizieller Bericht über die Verhandlungen des VIII. Internationalen Kunsthistorischen Kongresses in Darmstadt vom 23.-26. September 1907, Seemann Verlag, 82.
  • 2 Aby Warburg, Offizieller Bericht über die Verhandlungen des VIII. Internationalen Kunsthistorischen Kongresses in Darmstadt vom 23.-26. September 1907, Seemann Verlag, 100.

No such center was established. Adolph Goldschmidt, in Offizieller Bericht über die Verhandlungen des VIII. Internationalen Kunsthistorischen Kongresses in Darmstadt vom 23.-26. September 1907, Seemann Verlag, 102.

Ibid, 83.

Ibid, 101.

Heinrich Wölfflin, Wie man Skulpturen aufnehmen soll [Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, N.F., 7,1896], reprint in Skulptur im Licht der Fotografie. Von Bayard bis Mapplethorpe; Exh. cat. [Wilhelm-Lehmbruck-Museum Duisburg, Europäisches Zentrum Moderner Skulptur, 6. Dezember 1997 - 22. Februar 1998, 410.

Ibid, 410.

Albrecht Grimm, 120 Jahre Photogrammetrie in Deutschland: Das Tagebuch von Albrecht Meydenbauer, dem Nestor des Messbild-Verfahrens, veröffentlicht aus Anlaß des Jubiläums 1858/1978. Abhandlungen und Berichte / Deutsches Museum 45,2 (München: Oldenbourg [et al.], 1978), 15.

Albrecht Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst in Anwendung auf Baudenkmäler-und Reise-Aufnahmen (Halle a. S: Knapp, 1912), 241.

Albrecht Meydenbauer, Über die Anwendung der Photographie zur Architektur- und Terrain-Aufnahme, in: Zeitschrift für Bauwesen 17 (1867): 61-70.

Aeydenbauer, Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst, 7.

Rudolf Meyer, Albrecht Meydenbauer (Leipzig: Fotokino 1985), 32.

Jörg Albertz, “Albrecht Meydenbauer: Pionier der Photogrammetrie und der Dokumentation von Kulturdenkmälern”, in Hessische Baukunst in alten Fotografien 156.

Cf. Herta Wolf, “Das Licht im Dienste der Wissenschaften. Herausforderung Venusdurchgang 1874”, in In Licht und Leitung (= Archiv für Mediengeschichte), ed. Lorenz Engell et al. (Weimar: Üniversitätsverlag, 2002), 85-100. Cf. Sara Hillnhuetter, “Präzision und Kontingenz in Carl Koppes Wolkenphotogrammetrie”, in: Bilder der Präzision, Praktiken der Verfeinerung in Technik, Kunst und Wissenschaft, eds. Matthias Bruhn and Sara Hillnhuetter (Berlin: De Gruyter 2018), 97-114.

Meydenbauer, Das Denkmäler-Archiv, Ein Rückblick zum zwanzigjährigen Bestehen der Königlichen Messbild-Anstalt. (Berlin offprint 1905; due to an exhibition at the Reichstag). 16. Hubert Damisch, “Fünf Anmerkungen zu einer Phänomenologie des fotografischen Bildes.” in Paradigma Fotografie: Fotokritik am Ende des fotografischen Zeitalters, ed. Herta Wolf, 135-139 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2002), 137.

Albrecht Meydenbauer, “Ein deutsches Denkmäler-Archiv”, Deutsche Bauzeitung 18, no. 102 (1894), 629-631.

Ibid, 631.

Meydenbauer, Das Denkmäler-Archiv, 18.

Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst, 2-3.

Albrecht Meydenbauer, Das photographische Aufnehmen zu wissenschaftlichen Zwecken, insbesondere das Messbild-Verfahren (Berlin: Unte‘s Verlags-Anstalt, 1892), 53.


Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst, 88.


Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst in Anwendung auf Baudenkmäler- und Reise-Aufnahmen, 2-3.

Meydenbauer, Handbuch der Messbildkunst, 88.

Meydenbauer, Das Denkmäler-Archiv, 14.

Heinrich Klotz, “Über das Abbilden von Bauwerken”, architectura, vol. 1, no. 1 (1971): 1-14.

Part 2

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics