by Gerald Boerner
“…industrial design is the art of the 21st Century…”
“This was in West Virginia. The plant was due to be closed down, but the workers made a stand and decided to buy it together, which they did.”
— Bernd Becher
“Only nothing remains of the industrial age. So we thought that our photos would give the viewer the chance to go back to a time that is gone forever.”
— Bernd Becher
“When someone discovers something in their lives that really interests them, then they should be content with doing that – without having to go and lie on a beach once a year.”
— The Bechers
“…internationally celebrated pioneers of conceptual art, emphasize their influence on the following generation of photographers and last but not least, sing their praises as archaeologists of the industrial age.”
“They were constructed with no consideration of so-called beauty and serve their functionality alone. Which means that when they lose their function they are no longer entitled to exist, so they are torn down.”
— Hilla Becher
“War thinking was still prevalent in those days. Every now and then someone would ring the police on the grounds of suspected espionage. People actually believed that we were researching targets for a military attack. Why else would anybody want to photograph winding towers?”
— Hilla Becher
“As time went by we developed a sort of ideology without ever formulating it as such. I’ve always said that we are documenting the sacred buildings of Calvinism. Calvinism rejects all forms of art and therefore never developed its own architecture. The buildings we photograph originate directly from this purely economical thinking.”
— Bernd Becher
“All we did was to turn back the time to a photography of precision which is superior to the human eye. Other art schools used to put the fear of God into their students by asking them ‘Can you make a living out of that?’ We wanted just the opposite and simply told them to make stuff first and then we’d go on from there. They could see how we’d made our way. Showing by doing, maybe that was it.”
— Bernd Becher
Bernd (1931 – 2007) and Hilla Becher (born: 1934)
Both Bernd and Hilla were born at a time (1931 and 1934 respectively) where as teenagers they lived within a devastated post war Germany. Born in the Siegerland, Bernd experienced first hand the landscape of the German iron industry as a child. In photography, they focused their early attentions towards the architecture of that same coal industry which they saw as examples of a pre-Nazi Germany and a steadfast foundation held against the reconstruction architecture that was taking place.
The objective direction of their work was an unusual choice as after the two world wars, documentary style had become impossible. it was of good taste for german artists to ‘ignore history’.
However the bechers had some precedents, for example in fellow german photographer August Sander, who over the period of forty years took portraits of thousands of german citizens. The idea of ‘the archive as art’ was proposed by his oeuvre. He arranged these portraits according to social type and occupation — from peasant farmers to circus performers, to prosperous businessmen.
Their approach to photographing was to reduce every aspect of personal style in order to emphasize the impersonal aesthetics of the buildings. This included the necessity to photography the structures straight on and from a height that provided a neutral vantage point. They look neither up nor down at their subjects, thus reducing the potential for politicizing these industrial structures. The 1920’s and 30’s depictions of industry celebrated it and held it up as signs of political or modern power. The Bechers neither monumentalize nor renunciate. This approach brings forth a notion in the viewer to compare one structure to the next. One pleasure of their work is following their direction.
That notion of comparison is what sets the Bechers apart from other photographers interested in types like August Sander. With Sander we look at his portraits one at a time and there is a clear division between each image. They are separate worlds that share common threads of humanity. The Becher’s types are linked physically by their presence as series. To see only one image on display in a show would amount to seeming like staring at an orphan. This, of course, is primarily because we know their working method and have been conditioned (or poisoned). To the unconditioned, could one photo from their work stand individually like a Charles Sheeler photograph?
Aside from their personal work, they were also the team behind the famed photography program at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf whose star pupils included Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand, Candida Hofer and Andreas Gursky. Their Freie Kunst (free or open art) program at the Kunstakademie was based on a master-student relationship. Although only Bernd was officially employed as a professor, the importance of Hilla’s contributions to their collaborative art led them to often conduct critiques of student’s work in their home. They served as individual mentors to students and only at their sole discretion did they then granted a diploma after they felt the student had achieved independence. Andreas Gursky was awarded this distinction in 1987 after six years of classes with Bernd Becher.
Life and Work
The Bechers first collaborated on photographing and documenting the disappearing German industrial architecture in 1959, and had their first Gallery exhibition in 1963 at the Galerie Ruth Nohl in Siegen. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design.
Together, the Bechers went out with a large format camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward "objective" point of view. The images of structures with similar functions were then displayed side by side to invite viewers to compare their forms and designs. These structures included barns, water towers, storage silos, and warehouses.
The Bechers also photographed outside of Germany, including buildings from the United States and other areas of Europe. Bernd taught at the Düsseldorf Art Academy and influenced students that later made a name for themselves in the photography industry. Former students of Bernd’s included Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer.
Blast furnaces, cooling towers, gasometers, water towers, lime kilns, compressors, factory halls, head-frames of mine shafts – not the stuff of excitement for most of us. However, these anonymous industrial structures have been a fountain of passion for the German spouses Becher who have avidly photographed them for over 40 years.
Their black-and-white images are all taken in the same clinical manner: a front and profile angle provide a clear and objective documentation of each structure, the building is placed in the centre of the frame and isolated from its environment. the mass of photos are made coherent through categorization into typologies, revealing the vast diversity of objects all with the same purpose. non-identical, yet uniform — the idiosyncratic differences and similarities become fascinating.
The Bechers describe their subjects as ‘buildings where anonymity is accepted to be the style.’ Presented collectively, their images transform these buildings into objects worthy of interest, if not admiration.
The typological approach to photography has historic as well as aesthetic significance. we turn to photography because it is a rich means through which to represent — and interpret, reality — and the documentary aspect to the Becher’s work has been widely appreciated by engineering and architectural historians.
Awards and Honors
They were the 2004 winners of the Hasselblad Award. The motivation for the award:
“Bernd and Hilla Becher are among the most influential artists of our time. For more than forty years they have been recording the heritage of an industrial past. Their systematic photography of functionalist architecture, often organizing their pictures in grids, brought them recognition as conceptual artists as well as photographers. As the founders of what has come to be known as the ‘Becher school’ they have brought their influence in a unique way to bear on generations of documentary photographers and artists.”
Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:
Bernd and Hilla Becher that can be found at…
Also, an article on Bernd and Hilla Becher found in…
Peter Stepan. (2008) 50 Photographers You Should Know. New York: Prestel.