Bernd and Hilla Becher
Hilla: September 2nd, 1934 - Potsdam, Germany
Hilla: October 10th, 2015 - Düsseldorf, Germany
Summary of Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher spent their career documenting industrial structures across the Western world, creating a form of photography arranged by type that, through repetition, encourages viewers to engage deeply with the formal qualities of the subject matter. The Bechers took thousands of images and divided these into categories based on function and sequences based on formal similarities, borrowing from scientific classification for artistic ends, focusing attention on the hitherto overlooked, suggesting that industrial forms were worthy of scrutiny. Their work is rigorously objective in its aims, but in its exacting presentation stimulates consideration of the ways in which people organize and receive information about their own environments and the wider world. Bernd and Hilla Becher aspired to direct the audience's attention away from the photograph, emphasizing the content rather than light, perspective, or other artistic choices, but in doing so created a school of photography that forced reconsideration both of the presentation of images and the preservation of the built environment.
- Since the 1960s, the Bechers have focused exclusively on industrial structures that are typically overlooked. Their photographs focus the audience's vision on buildings and machinery from which people typically look away, demanding serious consideration. Their consistent focus on presenting structures associated with the coal and steel industries leads the viewer to reconsider their aesthetic preferences and encourages ongoing interest in industrial form.
- Bernd and Hilla Becher's work aspires toward objective documentation, aiming for images without subjectivity. Their photographs reacted against the prevailing mid-20th-century trend toward images in which the subject of a photograph is transformed by artistic elements such as soft focus, atmospheric lighting, or creative perspective. The Bechers photographed all structures in the same way, from a direct angle with a low horizon against a grey sky that minimized shadows, cropping each image so that the subject filled the frame.
- The Bechers' images are often associated with Conceptual art, due to the way in which they transform structures into form through removing them from their political and environmental context, even though the artists rejected this association. In arranging and displaying the images in sequences according to type, the works emphasize the similarities and differences between the structures that are presented. In this way, the arrangement of images acts as a commentary on aesthetics.
- The Bechers' lack of apparent consideration of industry's role in Nazi Germany is striking and has been subject to some criticism. A number of sites that they photographed were almost certainly involved in producing machinery and weapons used by German forces in World War II, but their images give no indication of this, tightly focusing on aesthetics at the expense of historical engagement. While other artists working in the same period argued that it was not possible to look at the past without considering the Holocaust and the rupture of World War II, the Bechers sought continuity with Weimar photographic traditions and focused on remnants of the industrial age that arguably came to a close with World War II whilst avoiding political questions of memory. This has evoked questions about the moral responsibilities of artists, with some critics arguing that representation of the world is sufficient while others suggest that such a position is immoral; another group argues that the Becher's reluctance to engage is so extreme that it constitutes a response to, rather than an evasion of, questions of historical responsibility.
Biography of Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd Becher was born in 1931 and raised in the town of Siegen, close to the Hainer Hütte steelworks, where many of his relatives worked. He had an apprenticeship as a painter and decorator with his father's company and spent a period in Italy working on his architectural drawing skills before enrolling in the State Art Academy in Stuttgart in 1954, where he would study painting, typography and graphic art. Bernd Becher foresaw that the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 would transform industrial landscapes and he began sketching the Siegerland area and taking photographs to use as a basis for linocuts and lithographs around this point, due to the speed with which buildings were being demolished.
Important Art by Bernd and Hilla Becher
This photograph shows a cooling tower in Bochum, Germany against a grey sky, rendered in black and white. The structure, constructed of wood with iron bars in a crossed pattern, is wide at the base and tapers slightly toward the middle, with a ladder leading up to the top; it fills the frame of the image, with other components of the site cropped out. Cooling towers, which originated in Europe in the nineteenth century before spreading internationally, are designed for use across a range of industrial sites, including oil refineries and food processing plants, and work to expel waste heat from water, forcing steam upward to evaporate into the atmosphere so that the water might be reused. Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed over two hundred cooling towers over the course of their career, ranging from early wooden forms to more recent concrete structures.
Cooling Tower is emblematic of the Bechers' approach across their career; the presentation of the structure aspires toward the objective and impersonal. This photograph was taken with a large-format camera from a frontal perspective. The cooling tower is isolated from its context as part of a larger industrial site. There are no figures or other visual indicators, such as steam, that suggest the structure's ongoing use. Nonetheless, it is not romanticized; it is shown in clear focus, with an even depth of field, with no attempts to distort through atmospheric lighting or unusual angles. This technique serves to concentrate the audience's attention on the structure, encouraging consideration of the formal properties of the cooling tower itself as opposed to the means of representation.
This sequence of photographs, showing pitheads from British mining and quarrying sites, were taken from 1965 to 1974 and is representative of the way the Bechers chose to display their work through their career, arranging images in groups according to type. Pitheads, known as such in the United Kingdom and as winding towers elsewhere, were positioned at the top of coal shafts and served as mechanisms for hoisting gear into and out of mines. These nine images, arranged in rows of three, all show the pithead from the same distance and perspective, centering the structure in the frame and tightly cropping the surrounding buildings. In each case, the horizon is low and the backdrop cloudy; the pitheads themselves rise up as triangles, with circular rigs positioned at top of the structure, where a vertical base intersects with a metal diagonal leading into the mine itself.
This mode of display encouraged audiences to closely consider the form of the structures on display, with repetition facilitating a greater understanding of the ways in which different examples resembled or diverged from one another. In Pitheads, each structure has the same basic form, but varies in the angle of the diagonal that leads into the mine, the number of supports linking this diagonal to the base and in the nature and number of buildings grouped at the base of each pithead. Bernd and Hilla Becher considered this arrangement by type, usually referred to as a typology, as a means of emphasizing the different solutions that engineers found for the problems industrial structures were built to address.
Zimmermann Coal Co., Ravine, Schuylkill County is among a group of photographs, Pennsylvania Coal Mine Tipples, on which Bernd and Hilla Becher worked in the 1970s. The image, like the group to which it belongs, is a record of a regionally specific industrial architecture. The tipple in this photograph, used to load and transport coal in a similar manner to a winding tower, is hand-built, with wooden supports at various angles that suggest instability. These makeshift structures were often built by independent miners following the Great Depression, during which period many mines in the United States were forced to close due to lack of funds. The shape of tipples sprung from the particular geology of the sites where they were located; while this photograph is cropped to focus on the structure itself, the hills of Pennsylvania and heaps of rock or coal can be seen both behind and at the base of the tipple.
Zimmermann Coal Co., Ravine, Schuylkill County offers an image of a method of mining that largely does not exist today. The Bechers' images were partially intended as a means of preserving a way of life that was, in the period in which they were working, in the process of disappearing. The structure displayed here is testament not only to engineering, but to the human relationship with the land; the handmade quality of the tipple directs the audience's consideration to the geological knowledge that underpins the construction of and work at regional coal mines. The degree to which these images testify to a period and way of working that has now been lost has led some critics to view them, more recently, with a nostalgia which was rarely felt when the structures were still standing.
This appreciation of images as cues for nostalgia has also been applied to the work of other photographers, including Stephen Shore, who shared the Becher's interest in representing the landscape without idealization and runs counter to the initial view of such photographers as anti-Romantic. Some believe that this sense of melancholy stems from the careful composition of the Bechers' photographs, while others maintain, as did the artists themselves, that this feeling is the result of change in the world outside the image rather than inherent to the work itself.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic FormsOur PickBy Susanne Lange
- Typologies of Industrial BuildingsOur PickBy Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and WorkOur PickBy Susanne Lange
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Typologie, Typologien, TypologiesBy Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Bernd and Hilla Becher: Stonework and Lime KilnsBy Bernd and Hilla Becher
- Coal Mines and Steel Mills, Bernd & Hilla BecherBy Heinz Liesbrock
- New TopographicsBy Britt Salvesen
- August Sander/Bernd and Hilla Becher: 'A Dialogue'Our PickBy Vicki Goldberg / The New York Times / May 22, 2014
- Hilla Becher, Photographer Who Chronicled Industrial Scenery Dies at 81Our PickBy Sewell Chan / The New York Times / October 14, 2015
- Instant Expert: Bernd and Hilla BecherBy Emma Hamilton / The American Photo Magazine / November 21, 2011
- Review/Photography; Making Industrial Buildings Look Like ButterfliesBy Charles Hagen / The New York Times / January 22, 1993