Bernd and Hilla Becher - Biography and Legacy
Hilla: September 2nd, 1934 - Potsdam, Germany
Hilla: October 10th, 2015 - Düsseldorf, Germany
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.
Hilla Wobeser was born in 1934 and raised in Potsdam, where she began taking photographs at the age of thirteen, encouraged by a mother who had trained as a photographer in the 1920s. She began a three-year apprenticeship with Ernst Eichgrün, an architectural photographer, where her assignments included photographing the gardens and buildings of the Sanssouci Palace for a book and documenting the spaces and activities of a railway repair shop. After this, Wobeser moved to Hamburg to work as an aerial photographer and then to Düsseldorf.
Early Training and Work
Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser met working at the Troost advertising agency in Düsseldorf in 1957. Both studied at the Düsseldorf Art Academy whilst working in advertising; Wobeser also taught courses in photography to her peers. The pair began to work together to document disappearing industrial architecture in 1959, their different backgrounds and approaches complimenting one another. In 1961, they married and left the Düsseldorf Art Academy, continuing their collaborative work as artists while Bernd worked as a graphic designer and Hilla worked for an architect's office, documenting pavilions and exhibitions.
The Bechers' photographs, throughout their decades of collaboration, focused on documenting industrial sites, isolating particular buildings and organizing these by type, displaying multiple examples alongside one another, or by perspective, offering eight views of one structure, rotating around it and taking a photograph at each 45 degree angle. They began by focusing on Siegerland, largely for practical reasons, due to the cost of travel, before expanding to the Ruhr and then internationally, looking at industrial buildings in Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Northern France and the United States. The Bechers felt that their project was urgent and of the utmost importance; they did not take vacations, instead dedicating all available hours to their photography. In 1966, when they received a grant from the British Council allowing them to take photographs in England, Scotland and Wales, they worked with their two-year-old son, Max, at their feet. Over the following decades, the Bechers would visit and revisit sites, documenting various industrial buildings, often just before these structures were demolished. They frequently travelled in a campervan with a portable darkroom, maximizing their productivity while on the road.
During the 1960s, Bernd and Hilla Becher's work circulated primarily in industrial and architectural journals. In their 1967 exhibition at the Neue Sammlung in Munich, the emphasis was on the buildings that were documented rather than on the photographs themselves. These sites of presentation were appropriate to the aims of the Bechers' work, which focused around using photography as a means of documentation. Toward the end of the 1960s, the Bechers began to accompany their many series focused on type with series that showed industrial landscapes from a more removed perspective with the intention of providing a more comprehensive record of the sites in which they were interested.
In 1969, Bernd and Hilla Becher were given a solo exhibition at the Städtische Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf. The venue was simultaneously hosting an exhibition of Minimalist art from the United States of America and the photographs, seen in this context, were exposed to new audiences and led to their positioning as Conceptual artists. In 1970, their photographs were included in the Museum of Modern Art's landmark show Information and in 1972 their work was selected for Documenta 5, solidifying their position within Conceptual art circles. Bernd and Hilla Becher, however, continued to see and speak of themselves as documentary photographers, insisting that their aim was to create a record of industrial sites rather than to meditate on the nature of perception itself. Their work differed from that of others within the Conceptual art movement in its emphasis on photographs that sought to archive a specific subject of value through rigorous compositions. Hilla Becher claimed, in 1974, that the question of whether their work was art or not was "not very interesting." The Bechers, even as they were embraced by the art world, pursued the documentation of industry in a single-minded fashion.
Nonetheless, Bernd and Hilla Becher's work continued to be displayed alongside that of Conceptual artists and their disavowal of the term cannot be taken purely at face value. While reluctant to talk about their photographic process, the level of skill evident in their images and their own professional training indicates that they must have been aware of the degree to which a photograph could not, as they often argued, be truly objective, given the number of decisions that shaped each image and each sequence of images. The Bechers' interest in organizing their images, additionally, closely resembles the interest in systems and transmission of information that was often central to Conceptual Art. The Bechers distanced themselves from approaches to their work that were overly interpretative, arguing that their work was purely a record which did not convey personality or feeling, yet maintained that others were free to view the images in whichever way they wished. This attitude stemmed from one of the paradoxes of the Bechers' career; the couple disliked authorial presence and the idea of the individual artist as visionary, but to discount others' claims required exercising such presence.
Bernd Becher was appointed as Chair of Artistic Photography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1976, establishing the school's photography program. Teaching, like photography, was largely collaborative; while Bernd Becher held the position, Hilla Becher worked alongside him throughout his time at the Academy. This gave the couple greater stability and facilitated continued recognition of their work internationally. In 1991, the pair won a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale. Bernd Becher retired from teaching in 1996, but Bernd and Hilla Becher continued to work, visiting sites across Europe and North America, until Bernd Becher's death in 2007. The couple viewed their task as infinite and urgent and it was only in the eight years between her husband's death and her own, in 2015, that Hilla Becher travelled to countries without industrial sites to document.
The Legacy of Bernd and Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher's legacy is substantial, with a wide range of artists and photographers having been shaped by their emphasis on objectivity, their approach to changing environments and their development of typology as a means of organizing images. While the Bechers' own work was heavily influenced by the Weimar movement of New Objectivity of the 1920s, their prominence at a point when subjectivity was the prevailing trend meant that they played a pivotal role in conveying this tradition to their own generation and photographers that followed, particularly in the United States, where their work was widely shown. Their influence can be seen on their contemporaries in the New Topographics movement, including photographers such as Stephen Shore, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams. The New Topographics photographers focused on the examination of vernacular architectures and landscapes free from romanticism, recording the impact of human activity on the natural environment rather than presenting idealized images. Some, such as Ed Ruscha, organized their images as the Bechers did, by type.
The legacy of the Bechers can also be seen in attitudes to industrial architecture itself. In 1970, Bernd and Hilla Becher began to actively campaign for the preservation of the structures they photographed and their images played a part in wider appreciation of industrial form. Their influence can be seen in the subsequent protection of numerous industrial buildings and, particularly, in the art world's embrace of former industrial spaces as sites for museums such as Mass MoCA and the Tate Modern.
Bernd and Hilla Becher's influence as educators is also widespread, with those who studied under them in the 1970s and 1980s including Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Thomas Ruff. These photographers, like the Bechers, tend to minimize human presence even as they explore landscapes and spaces shaped by human influence and employ documentary techniques, such as even depth of field and perspectives that aspire to objectivity. This group are now often referred to as the Düsseldorf School of Photography, in reference to the shared origins of their work in the Bechers' classes.