Focusing on Albert Renger-Patzsch’s photographs of the Zollverein colliery, this essay investigates the tension between the clarity of Renger-Patzsch’s aesthetic and the physical reality of the industrial environment in which he worked. In doing so, it offers an account of New Objectivity photography that is attentive to both the environment from which it emerged and the way in which photography, in turn, acted upon this environment. Placing particular stress on the clear contours and white backgrounds of these photographs, as well as their material and technical prerequisites, it argues that the radical clarity of Renger-Patzsch’s photographs is best regarded as an active intervention into a compromised environment, in which the photographer was called upon to bring forth clarity from the dust and smoke of industrial extraction.

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