Candida höfer is known for her exquisitely detailed large-format photographs of opera houses, libraries and palaces, but when she comes to Hong Kong she likes to go small. “When I’m here I use my handheld camera,” she says. “It’s discreet and I have it with me almost always. It gives me more freedom.”
“It’s a Sony,” she adds, and then pauses a beat before offering a quick and mischievous smile. “And that’s not because of the award.”
In April, Höfer was given the Outstanding Contribution to Photography prize at the 2018 Sony World Photography Awards. It’s a recognition of her 50-year career as a photographer, one that began under the tutelage of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose black-and-white documentation of Germany’s industrial landscape created an entirely new genre of photography – now known as the Dusseldörf School – that studied our contemporary environments with a clear, unwavering gaze.
Höfer was most recently in Hong Kong for her annual visit to Art Basel. “We’ve come every year, from the time it was still Art HK,” she says, referring to the original art fair that helped transform Hong Kong into a global art hub. She’s sitting in her Mandarin Oriental suite with her husband, who serves as an interpreter for Höfer’s softly spoken German.
She’s polite but circumspect, with a manner of speaking that can come across as terse, but is perhaps just a reflection of a particularly focused and determined personality. Several years ago, when the Hong Kong fashion blog Kotur interviewed Höfer, her responses were as illuminating as they were succinct.
“What are you least proud of?” asked the interviewer.
“I don’t think about it,” she responded.
“What’s your favourite smell?”
“What’s your idea of a perfect holiday?”
“I prefer to have no great holidays. I like to relax and be by myself, but I prefer in a way to keep busy.”
As her photographs suggest, Höfer is not an extroverted person. In fact, she began her artistic journey by making portraits of Turkish immigrant families in 1970s Germany, but she could never shake the feeling that she was intruding on their lives. There’s a palpable sense of discomfort in those early images: a butcher awkwardly half-smiling, a group of women posing bemusedly as they enjoy a picnic.
“I was intrigued by the way immigration was changing the image of German cities,” says Höfer. She eventually realised what she found most interesting was the environment in which these migrants’ lives – the particular arrangement of tins in a deli, the mismatched furniture in a social club. “It was the ornamental order of things, the way things are
placed in space,” she says. At one point, she was photographing a family in their apartment, and a distinct feeling of intruding on
their lives came over her. “I felt like I was using rather than giving,” she recalls.
And with that, she changed her focus. Höfer began documenting interior spaces completely devoid of people and discovered that, rather than feeling empty and depopulated, they
were alive with ambition and aspiration. The objects and spaces that people leave behind says as much about them as they could ever reveal to you themselves. “With the absence
of people their purpose becomes more obvious,” says Höfer.
Over the years, Höfer has developed a recognisable style. She shoots in large format – film at first, and now digital – which allows for richly detailed images that need to be seen up close, in person, to really appreciate. She prefers a head-on perspective. “It’s the best way to capture the feeling of the space or the space of the feeling,” she says. And though she’s documented a number of minimalist spaces, particularly in her series of photographs of libraries, she seems to have a fondness for the ostentatious interiors of earlier, more gilded eras. “I feel that when you use large format, something neutralises the ostentation,” she says.
Höfer is often celebrated for her technical skill – her work has been praised by Scott Gray, the CEO of the World Photography Organisation, as “technically perfect and so beautifully intense” – so it’s a surprise to hear her downplay that side of her craft. “It’s not my key interest,” she says. “My interest is in the image in front of me.”
Here in Asia, she often finds herself contemplating a very different set of images. When she travels with her handheld camera, she’s drawn to details and colours, documenting construction sites, windows and the ephemera of everyday life. “They end up being quite abstract,” she says. “I often can’t remember where I took them.”
But she thinks the end result is the same. “The point is not to capture the reality of the moment,” she says. “It’s not a documentary. The point is to create an image.”