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Bernd and Hilla Becher Artworks

German Photographers

Bernd and Hilla Becher Photo
Movements and Styles: Conceptual Art, Düsseldorf School

Born: Bernd: August 20th, 1931 - Siegen, Germany
           Hilla: September 2nd, 1934 - Potsdam, Germany

Died: Bernd: June 22nd, 2007 - Rostock, Germany
           Hilla: October 10th, 2015 - Düsseldorf, Germany

Artworks by Bernd and Hilla Becher

The below artworks are the most important by Bernd and Hilla Becher - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Cooling Tower (1967)

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.

Pitheads (1974)

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.

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Zimmermann Coal Co., Ravine, Schuylkill County (1978)

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.

Blast Furnaces Sequence (1970-80s)

This sequence of images shows blast furnaces, used to smelt various kinds of metals, from across Europe and the United States of America. In the sequence, blast furnaces are shown from a range of angles, though the Bechers' process for photographing was no less rigorous for this variety; they employed a technique in which they captured each furnace at each forty-five-degree angle, selecting images from among these. As is usual across the oeuvre of Bernd and Hilla Becher, each blast furnace is isolated, filling the frame, and there are fewer external indicators providing context.

Blast Furnaces Sequence showcases the degree to which Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographic process served not simply to preserve the architecture documented, but also to transform it, stripping it of its utilitarian purpose and emphasizing its formal qualities. In this period, sculpture that drew upon industrial materials and techniques was developing, with artists such as Jean Tinguely, Michael Heizer and Donald Judd coming to prominence. The Bechers' images were sometimes labelled, by themselves and by others, as "anonymous sculptures," alluding both to the unknown engineers and to the lack of conscious attention to the sculptural qualities of these structures. In this, the Bechers provide a suggestion of the machine aesthetic from which artists working with welded materials drew, elevating industrial precedents to a similar position. They suggested, in statements accompanying their work, that anonymous engineers deserved to be lauded as fully as individual artists.

In Blast Furnaces Sequence, the audience's attention is arrested by the complexity of the blast furnaces, which twist and contort in a multitude of ways, with serpentine lines that suggest organic forms such as bodies. The images emphasize the aesthetic qualities of the forms on display, encouraging a consideration of the similarities between industrial sites and modern sculpture.

Industrial Facades Typology (1984 - 1994)

Industrial Facades Typology is a more obviously architectural sequence than many of the Bechers' other groups; these structures do not clearly express their functions, but rather hide them. They fit within Bernd and Hilla Becher's larger body of work, however, as documents of a particular element within industrial sites, illustrating the way in which buildings respond to the need to be affordable and durable. This particular sequence consists of industrial facades that are taller than they are wide. The majority are constructed in brick with an iron skeleton that creates grids that overlay the facades. The Bechers' photographs are taken from a frontal perspective against a grey sky, cropped so that the facades fill the frames, and the repeated composition draws attention to similarities and differences in form.

The degree to which these buildings remain inscrutable even as the image represents them clearly is indicative of a paradox underlying Bernd and Hilla Becher's work, in which clearly documenting industrial buildings does not provide the audience with an understanding of them, but rather marks a level of remove. The structures appear as two-dimensional due to the frontal perspective, with no sense of the volumes that lie behind the façades. In some cases, the buildings appear abandoned, with broken windows, while in others vehicles suggest that they are still in use. The photographs are accompanied by locations, but not by dates of construction or indications of use, and so appear mysterious to their audience. This removal of historical and geographical context in the Bechers' images is particularly striking when considered in relation to the period in which the artists were working, as Germany attempted to come to terms with the Holocaust and other aspects of recent European history.

The Bechers' work represents the past, in the form of buildings, without acknowledging or engaging with this rupture and this approach to modern history can be seen as either part of or counter to the struggle amongst German artists, most prominently Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke, to come to terms with postwar identity. Thomas Struth, one of the Bechers' students, argued that their work was so extreme in its pursuit of the apolitical that the position read as a response to the recent past rather than as a neutral act, suggesting their approach reflects the difficulty of engagement; others have criticized them for prioritizing the aesthetic qualities of factories that almost certainly contributed to the German war effort. These photographs, characterized by their lack of context, ultimately refuse to provide insight into the range of social, political, and environmental issues with which industrial sites were often associated, leaving them open to interpretation.

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Gas Tanks (1963 - 1992)

Bernd and Hilla Becher organized their images of tanks for storing gas according to type; this sequence shows spherical gasholders, which have the largest capacity, holding liquefied or compressed gasses. These gas tanks were made of steel, insulated against heat and coated in reflective paint and those shown in this sequence were elevated on straight pylons, which was often, but not always, the case. The grouping of spherical gasholders together attracts the audience's attention to the staining on the outside of the structures and to the different positions of the skeletal staircases that wrap around the outside of the tanks, encouraging consideration of these as aesthetic properties that differentiate the structures from one another without interfering with their function.

The Bechers' typology, here as elsewhere, presents the industrial structures almost as scientific specimens; there is no clear hierarchy or imposition of the photographers' own conclusions regarding the gas tanks, with the audience's attention distributed equally between the twelve images. The Bechers regularly cited August Sander, who had taken this approach in representing people, plants and building types such as castles and gothic cathedrals, as an influence, and this can be seen clearly in their use of this format. In these groups, the individual structure is subsumed into that of the larger group, making them examples of a type rather than individual specimens. The spherical gas tanks are presented as the products of unknown engineers which do not express the individuality of their designers and the Bechers' presentation matches this, carefully avoiding any expression of the photographers' subjective responses, erasing the individual in order to focus on society more broadly. In choosing to photograph gas tanks, the Bechers position these forms as worthy of attention, grouping them for inspection in a similar manner to that in which artists and scientists had previously grouped gothic cathedrals and rare butterflies. Other artists, later, continued this tradition, but altered it further, with a particular emphasis on the snapshot rather than exacting composition; Ed Ruscha's Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, for example, arranges apparently unstudied shots of petrol stations in a similar manner, suggesting that it is the typology itself, rather than the content, that transforms the everyday into art.

Related Artists and Major Works

Flat Irons for Shoe Manufacture, Fagus Factory I (1926)

Movement: Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity)

Artist: Albert Renger-Patzsch

The work pictures flat irons, used in shoe manufacturing, organized in a very orderly and systematic way. It is exemplary of Albert Renger-Patzsch's body of work that aimed to capture the "reality" of ordinary objects. This fascination with the beauty of the commonplace granted him the title of "photographer of things." In 1927, Renger-Patzsch wrote, "We still don't sufficiently appreciate the opportunity to capture the magic of material things. The structure of wood, stone, and metal can be shown with a perfection beyond the means of painting....To do justice to modern technology's rigid linear structure...only photography is capable of that." These sharp, objective, and realistic depictions of life made him a key artist of the New Objectivity movement.

The sense of order was one of Renger-Patzsch's main themes, and the way in which he captures the objects' matter-of-factness lends an air of scientific illustration to the photograph. It should be noted that in his striving for "the truth" Renger-Patzsch's photographs seem to be impartial, without judgment or critique, an attribute completely lacking among his painter colleagues.

While his 1928 book of photographs entitled Die Welt ist schön (The World is Beautiful), a title forced on him by his publisher, was extremely popular and is a precursor to the industrial photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher that came a few decades later, he remained largely unknown in the United States at the time.

Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966)

Movement: Conceptual Art (Read Movement Overview, History, and Artworks pages)

Artist: Ed Ruscha (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

For this photographic survey of Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, Ruscha rigged a camera to the back of a pick-up truck and drove back and forth along the strip, shooting both sides of the avenue. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art. The book constituted a significant redefinition of the traditional artist's or photographer's book, expensively bound to highlight the quality reproductions inside.

Much of the history of photography was the attempt to validate photography as an art form, as exemplified by the work of Alfred Stieglitz or Edward Weston. Ruscha did not attempt to glorify the art of photography as one might expect through his abstraction of the subject matter via interesting cropping, careful editing or rich contrasts of light and dark. He does not promote his skill as a photographer. In fact, he shot at high noon under stark lighting that gave the photographs an amateurish look; and instead of artfully composing the picture he used the "strip" rather like a ready-made form to which his artistic decisions were subject. Like many of his generation, he rejects the idea that art should be an expression of a unique artistic vision or personality. Ruscha's frank or "deadpan" document is typical of the anti-expressionist attitude that is seen in much art photography from the 1960s to the present, such as that of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth, and Rineke Dijkstra. A major distinction between photo-conceptualist work and many other instances of what has come to be termed as "deadpan photography" is that the photo-conceptualist approach is documentary (or seems so) and privileges the concept over the presentation of skilled photographic technique.

99 Cent (1999)

Artist: Andreas Gursky (Read Full Artist Overview, Biography, and Artworks pages)

This enormous photograph (over 6 by 11 feet) depicts the interior of a Ninety-Nine Cent store in Los Angeles. The shelves are filled with stacks of mass produced and widely recognizable branded items such as Kit Kat Bars, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, and Colgate toothpaste, all sold below their normal market value. Six white poles in the middle and background break up the sea of color, moving the viewer's eye throughout the space and calling attention to the ".99 Cent Only" posters on the walls. As the assault of color dissipates the viewer discovers the presence of shoppers walking among the aisles.

Gursky says 99 Cent was inspired by an experience on his first trip to Los Angeles when he became "directly fascinated" by a dollar store window while driving at night. The result is this immersive and beautifully composed scene, in which he lends a critical eye to issues of manufacture and exchange. His manipulation of perspective combined with the reflection of merchandise in the mirrored ceiling radiates a sense of claustrophobia and forces the viewer to confront the details of an overwhelming number of brightly packaged objects. The piece is a great example of Gursky's use of parts to inform a whole, relying on the exorbitant amount of boxed products to inform the overall composition through both color and form and compiling a message about human beings' role in consumerism.

In 2001, he made a related piece, 99 Cent II, Diptych of two Ninety-Nine Cent store interiors. The layout and color palate of these interiors are so similar to each other and to those of this photograph that they could be the same store. Although the products displayed on shelves are different, the repetition of the architecture, color and signs shows little change in terms of the mass production and marketing in the years between the two.

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