Wilhelm Schürmann

The Physiognomy of Owner-Occupied Dwellings

“Show me what you are building and I’ll tell you who you are.” If one goes by this quip by German poet and writer Christian Morgenstern, houses reveal quite a lot about their owners. Be it on a housing estate, a terraced house or an owner-occupied apartment – there’s always a bit of a “where” behind the “who”. And the idea of owning your own four walls is a typically German version of happiness.

Wilhelm Schürmann’s photographs present variants of this dream. His black-and-white shots present homes in the borderland areas of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands – and the buildings really do have their own character, for Wilhelm Schürmann’s photos of a house always tell a story about the occupants without ever showing them. Instead, what we view is a window sill that is somehow askew, an unorthodox front garden, a strange gables, each attesting to the occupant’s presence. “Self-made architecture” is what Wilhelm Schürmann calls these bizarre products of a human hand. Often it is only details that transform a uniform edifice into a personalized building, giving it a physiognomy entirely of its own – or, to quote Schürmann again, “giving a thing a face”.

“Photographs have a reality all of their own,” says Wilhelm Schürmann, which is all the more astonishing as precisely his sober images of residential buildings and streets seem to be documentation pure and simple in black and white. Several criteria underline the ostensible matter-of-fact thrust: the typological approach, the serial nature of the photos, the carefully composed lack of depth, the sky in uniform gray. It is another element that fissures this gloss, namely humor. That, he claims, is the “most important thing of all” in art. This is why in Wilhelm Schürmann’s images there is certainly no lack of humor: “I love that human factor in images, those bizarre moments in life.” But he leaves it to us to discover these abstruse qualities in the pictures of houses.

Today, Wilhelm Schürmann is known primarily as a collector and curator of contemporary art. In the early 1990s he stopped taking pictures altogether. “What I had to say was already in the world.” Nevertheless, it can’t be ruled out that Wilhelm Schürmann might one day take up a camera again: “I once looked at the world and took photos. And I continue to see motives and images in the world that surrounds me.”

Biographical information

1946

born in Dortmund

1966-1971

studies Chemistry in Aachen

1972

starts collecting photography and taking photographs

1981-2011

Professor for Photography in Aachen

lives in Herzogenrath, Germany