Axel Braun - Catalog text by Dr. Estelle Blaschke


The invention of photography in 1840 and its reproducibility created a new and extremely important archiving medium. This medium was vehemently criticised by some contemporaries, yet also celebrated with euphoria by others. The French writer Charles Baudelaire saw photography as a threat that would undermine the arts and their established hierarchies. He believed that photography should be restricted in status and used as no more than a tool. Its role should be limited to recording the past, in order to “rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory.” [1] In reply, the American author and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote an article in 1859, entitled “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph” in which he praised the enormous potential of photography to change our perception of physical objects and the way we relate to them: “Form is henceforth divorced from matter [...]. Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable [ ... ]. Every conceivable object of Nature and Art will soon scale off its surface for us.” [2] The consequence of this,” said Holmes, “will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now.”

As anticipated by Holmes and criticised by Baudelaire, the collection of extensive photographic stocks soon became reality and indeed an obsession in the development of academic disciplines and also at museums, libraries and commercial enterprises.

The second half of the 19th century saw the creation of countless photographic archives which differed widely in their functions: as visual cartographic collections such as the Mission Héliographique in France, [3] the Photographic Survey Movement in the UK [4] and similar enterprises in the United States [5] and Germany [6]; to support research and teaching in disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, astronomy and art history; to enhance police investigations [7], or as commercial sales structures such as the first stereoscopic photo agencies Keystone and Underwood & Underwood. Some of these projects were relatively small. [8] Others, such as Paul Otlet’s Repertoire Iconographique Universel or Albert Kahn’s Archives de la Planète were conducted on a global scale.

It has of course never been possible to reduce photography to its function as a tool. Instead, photography has become established as a medium of remembrance, and the photographic archives themselves have turned into “archives of our memories”. Yet a photographic image clearly displays a number of parallels with the principles of an archive: Photography captures a specific moment. It detaches a situation from the context in which it arose and also from the continuum of time, so that situations can be classified, arranged, reproduced and re-enacted. it reduces a given visual world to a standard format, whether as a negative or as a copy, so that photographs meet the requirements for being managed, processed and stored.

As part of his project “Technology Needs to Be Cruel in Order to Assert Itself”, the photographer and artist Axel Braun investigated the contents of RWE’s corporate archives. Like public institutions, corporate archives have extensive collections of documents which often permit no more than limited access. They contain images and video footage, press releases and promotional material, business correspondence and contracts. One function of these collections is to provide documentation and to create specific historical records. By selecting its corporate records, a company moulds its own self-image, and the purpose of such records is to vouch for the company’s stability and significance. At the same time, however, corporate archives such as the historical archives of RWE are also clearly motivated by economic and legal considerations. The documents are subject to ownership negotiations, and historical statistics, readings and research results can be of immense importance to the present day.

In his research and his installation, Braun counters the widespread (and erroneous) assumption that an archive does not tell a story but merely records facts and figures and that it consists of static, dead documents. His position is decidedly unequivocal on this point Similar to the act of photography – where certain settings are made and a specific detail is selected – he specifies a selective framework within which both text and visual materials form a network of time and space in its references and in its semantic content, whether the photographs are contemporary or historical, sketches or geological maps. Photographs are thus given a specific function. The frequently cited index-like relationship with reality – i.e. the idea that photographic references are a replacement of the narrator – ensures that photography provides proof and that it can potentially serve as a memory medium. And it is precisely these features which make photography such a valuable medium and archiving object. By photographing power plants, dams and technicised landscapes in his works, Axel Braun comments on this dual function of photography and creates a resonating space where the material that is expressed through the archived items can continually be updated. In “Technology Needs to Be Cruel in Order to Assert Itself” Braun affirms the existence of these large-scale projects which hve interfered with the surface of nature – sometimes more, sometimes less – and also their impact on and relevance to the here-and-now. At the same time, the photographs and their installation in the exhibition room trigger a process of remembrance. Their constellation re-contextualises both the archived items and Braun’s contemporary photographs by giving them an opportunity to circulate and thus a basis for new and renewed interpretations.
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1 – Charles Baudelaire, Curiosités esthétiques: l’art romantique et autres œuvres critiques, Salon de 1859, textes établis par Henri Lemaître. (Paris: Ed. L’Harmattan, 1997).
2 – Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859), published in Classic Essays on Photography, Alan Trachtenberg (ed.) (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), pp. 71-82: 81.
3 – Anne de Mondenard, “La mission héliographique: myths et histoire”, Études Photographiques 2 (1997),
4 – Elizabeth Edwards, The Camera as Historian: Amateur Photographers and Historical Imagination 1885-1918 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012).
5 – Robin Kelsey, Archive Style: Photographs & Illustrations for U.S. Surveys (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
6 – Herta Wolf, “Das Denkmälerarchiv Fotografie,” in Paradigma Fotografie. Fotokritik am Ende des fotografischen Zeitalters Herta Wolf (ed.), (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002), pp. 349-375.
7 – Ibid.
8 – I am referring to Alphonse Bertillon's use of photography in his anthropometric studies on the identification of individuals and criminology, developed in the 1880s.

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Dr. Estelle Blaschke (photo historian)
Published in the exhibition catalog
"Axel Braun – Technology must be cruel in order to assert itself."
Editor: RWE Stiftung, Essen, 2012