Image above: ©Bernd and Hilla Becher. Self Portrait, 1985. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
[P]hotography does not create eternity, as art does, it embalms time, rescuing it simply from its proper corruption.
-André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”
Rarely has a body of work adopted the form of an industrial subject with the grace of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs. The pair first crossed paths at the Düsseldorf Academy in 1959 as students. Prior to their meeting, Hilla worked as an aerial photographer in Hamburg while Bernd studied painting, lithography, and typography. The formal rigors characterizing their preliminary endeavors would resurface in their methodical approach to photography. The couple married in 1961 and collaborated until Bernd’s death in 2007.
Over the latter half of the 20th century, the duo produced a formidable body of work documenting the machinery and architecture of a bygone era of industrial plenitude in regions as distinct as the Ruhr Valley of Germany and the Rust Belt of the United States. Together they scoured coal mines, steel mills, and factories in search of structural parallels to record in a ritualistic fashion. Optical fidelity was of the highest priority when constructing their images. With meticulous attention to detail, each object was photographed from the same vantage, often requiring ladders to aid in securing a consistent point of view. Such procedural difficulties were multiplied by their use of cumbersome large format cameras to create their work.
The Bechers approached their subjects directly, enacting an uncannily human rendering of inani- mate objects. They would speak of their work as “families of objects,” ever growing and expanding.1 Later, one of Bernd’s students, Thomas Ruff, would apply the same frontality to his portraits of fellow students at the Düsseldorf Academy with an opposite effect. If the Bechers humanized man-made structures, Ruff, mobilizing a similar approach as his mentor, turned his sitters into automatons, emptied of emotion and feeling. The absence of human presence in the Bechers’ pho- tographs furthers the uncanny effect of their work. Outmoded industry takes center stage in all of its impotent grandeur.
©Bernd and Hilla Becher. Cooling Towers, 1967-1984. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
©Bernd and Hilla Becher, Mine Head Siege De Folschwiller F, 1987. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
Composition was not the only control present in the Bechers’ process. Uniform exposure was main- tained by shooting only under overcast skies, providing muted lighting and a consistent back- ground. If the level of control possible in studio photography has ever manifested in plein air, it has done so in the Bechers’ images. The fruits of their methodology become apparent when the work is presented as typologies, grids of six, nine, or fifteen photographs of the same subject imaged at separate locations. Assembled in such a way, the photographs reveal the uniformity of 19th and 20th century industrial processes despite significant national differences. Viewers are reminded that a cooling tower is a cooling tower whether in France or in Germany. Yet it is the subtle varia- tion within the endless repetition that piques the curiosity of viewers. The longer one lingers upon the structures, the more apparent their differences become. Longer still and the typologies begin to unsettle. The photographs unite in name only.
The effect of the images is one of controlled chaos. The separation of the Bechers’ subjects from their surroundings is furthered by their insulation within thick, white mattes. While the couple’s knack for isolating their large and unwieldy subjects in a pre-digital era merits respect, it is the conceptual value of the their project that continues to inspire photographers. Emerging at a mo- ment when the identity of “art” photography was being challenged from all angles, the Bechers presented images of the thing itself. Photographs emptied of seduction. Photographs that record. Photographs that simply exist. Photographs of the sort that would lead Thierry de Duve to claim: “If it were possible for photography to be totally devoid of style, the Bechers would be so utterly.”2 The Bechers’ photographs are difficult to pin down. They blur the distinction between “art” pho- tography and practical uses of the medium. Wavering between the transcendent and the banal, they continue to force artists to question the meaning of the photographic object.
©Bernd and Hilla Becher. Blast Furniture Boel La Louviere B, 1985. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
©Bernd and Hilla Becher, Coal Bunkers, 1966-1999, 1985. Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York.
In 1976 Bernd was offered a position at the Düsseldorf Academy where he taught for two decades. It was under his mentorship that the so-called Düsseldorf school of photography came into be- ing. Boasting Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff as graduates, the academy became a powerhouse in the changing photographic landscape of the ‘80s and ‘90s. While each artist moved in a distinct direction, the formal rigor of the Bechers is felt across all of their work. The exchange went both ways. By the ‘90s, the Bechers began showing their photographs singly and enlarged to monumental sizes, a method of display popularized by their students. When reproduced in books, the Bechers’ photographs become archives of industrial structures as calculated as taxonomical atlases or supply catalogues. On the gallery wall, their transformation into grids echoes the production values of the objects that they depict. They open windows into a world inhabited by the skeletons of a bygone era; they are portraits of obsolescence. The Bechers were not alone in their quest to create massive collections of images derived from their surround- ings. Gerhard Richter, Bernd’s colleague at the Düsseldorf Academy, began to assemble images taken from the mass media and his personal life in the mid-60s, giving rise to his ongoing Atlas Project. In contrast to the Bechers, Richter’s project is one of accumulation without order, serving primarily as a sourcebook for the painter’s work.
The compulsive desire to construct archives was a recurring theme in German photography throughout the 20th century. In l927, Aby Warburg began his Mnemosyne Atlas which sought to organize images taken from newspapers, magazines, and books into coherent categories. Warburg died in 1929 and his atlas was left unfinished. Working at the same time as Warburg, August Sander’s exhaustive cataloguing of German citizens provides a photographic precedent for the Bechers. All of the abovementioned projects converge in their attempt shape the chaos of German identity in the 20th century into a stable form. The photograph becomes a means of preserving the fleeting, the unstable.
Having grown up in Western Pennsylvania, a region that has only recently recovered from the collapse of a once booming steel industry, the Bechers’ photographs resonate in ways the transcend matters of artistic form and concept. To myself and other natives of the area, the subjects taken up by the Bechers are a familiar sight, oddly comforting and reassuring. Rusted blast furnaces dot the landscape back home. They are the crumbling ruins of a blue collar empire: an Appalacian Rome. The Bechers visited and photographed the area in the late ‘70s, effectively performing the last rites for a dying culture. A subtle grandeur, steeped in melancholy, pervades the resulting images. Despite the fashionable dismissal of the Bechers’ work as cold and calculated, to natives of the regions photographed, the images are brimming with pathos. If the pleasure of looking offered by the camera is one of an unreachable past, the Bechers’ project serves as a reminder of the imper- manence of ourselves and the structures that make up our surroundings.
1 “Bernd and Hilla Becher: Conversation with Jean-Francois Chevrier, James Lingwood, Thomas Struth,” in Another Objectivity (London: ICA, 1988), 230.
2 Thierry de Duve, Basic Forms (New York: TeNeues, 1999), 7.
by cory rice