It would, I suppose, be possible to see Bernd and Hilla Becher’s pictures of industrial structures as boring, particularly if one were to restrict one’s attention to one or two pictures, though for me I think fascination with the detail always wins out. These are perfect pictures. They record the appearance of industrial structures – water towers, gas holders, mine heads etc – with complete objectivity and in forensic detail. The pictures were made over a period nearly five decades – they started collaborating in 1959 and continued until Bernd Becher’s death in 2007 – using a large format camera in the neutral lighting of overcast weather. The structures are viewed straight on, so that verticals remain vertical; the large format camera helps here but the Bechers also worked from raised viewpoints so that we are looking at the structures as directly as possible.
The level of detail in the photographs is extraordinary but it’s as a collection that these images really work. This is the archive as an art project and the typological approach is one that has had an extraordinary impact on contemporary art and in particular on German art photography. Bernd Becher taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf (where the couple met as painting students in 1957) for many years starting in 1976, where his students included Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth (who initially enrolled to study painting under Gerhard Richter before switching to photography) and Candida Höfer amongst others. Just as the Bechers influenced the generation that followed them, they had themselves been influenced by what had gone before, specifically the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) that defined the photography of the likes of August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt in the early twentieth century.
Spherical gas tanks
The Bechers’ photographs are usually displayed in grids – often of nine pictures but sometimes larger grids such as the one above – with each grid showing variants of a particular type of industrial structure. This mode of display is a crucial element in their comparative approach. Away from their geographical context and seen in relation to similar structures they become what the Bechers referred to as “anonymous sculptures”.
There is a sense of completeness about the project. The Bechers set out to catalogue the industrial structures that are at once familiar and strange and which are gradually disappearing in the developed world as heavy industry gives way to technology and automation. In addition to the structures, the Bechers made photographs of the locations of the structures, giving a wider picture so that the structures could be seen in their own context. This is work that tells us, in great detail, how we got from the industrial revolution to where we are now. It could be seen as a celebration of functional design and engineering if it’s possible to be celebratory and wholly objective at the same time.