When probed by critics to contextualise their vast collection of photographs of industrial architecture, Hilla and Bernd Becher stated that, “just as the medieval thought is manifest in a Gothic cathedral”, then “so too is the industrial age captured in the machinery once scattered across our lands”.
For more than 40 years the Bechers, husband and wife, documented a world made up of water towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, grain elevators, collieries, and mine heads: a world of machinery that was no longer used, obsolete; a world that was being swiftly and ruthlessly dismantled.
The epoch of the Industrial Revolution was vanishing without trace, so the Bechers decided to watch, camera at hand, capturing the death throes of a once robust epoch.
Hilla and Bernd met in 1957 while working at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf and discovered they had a mutual love of industrial architecture, especially that of the Ruhr region. Bernd had grown up in the area and initially planned to draw and paint these huge structures. But he soon realised that they were being demolished before he was finished with either pen or brush. Hilla, who was an experienced photographer by then, thought it more effective to use this medium instead, and instructed Bernd in technique and printing. A beautiful relationship was formed, and they married in 1961.
During this decade the Bechers, with their son Max in tow, travelled around in a VW camper pulling an old caravan customised as a darkroom. Their itinerary included Germany, Holland and France, while in 1966 they embarked on a six-month journey through England and Wales taking pictures of the coal industry. A love of collieries also took them to North America in 1974, Pennsylvania, where they recorded the coal mine tipples.
The objects of their affection might seem cursory upon first impression, but the Bechers’ working methods were anything but. Hilla described their style as “direct, descriptive photography”. This usually meant using ladders and scaffolding to shoot on their large-format plate cameras, with overcast conditions to minimise shadows and allow a neutral backdrop. The same standard was applied to each photograph to give complete objectivity. Photos were published in gelatin silver prints, and no monolith was considered too humdrum to be reverently and painstakingly recorded by them as one of their “anonymous sculptures”.
What transformed the Bechers’ work from documentary to art (although critics remain divided on this categorisation) was their use of typologies, which saw structures being exhibited in grid formations made up of six to fifteen photographs. “By placing several cooling towers side by side something happened, something like tonal music”, Hilla said: “You don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences”.
Individually the pictures are impressive, but collectively they take on a rippling power that pulses right out across the grids: a series of gas tanks that morph into displaced industrialised glitter balls; framework houses that variegate across the page like real-time mosaics; winding towers that could be desolate fun parks.
“When you look at something”, they explained, “you look at first one detail and then another until your memory builds up a complete picture. You never see anything in detail at once but the camera can”.
Contemporary critics found the Bechers’ exhibitions workaday, detached and indifferent: sets of stark black-and-white pictures of water towers and gas tanks will not engage everyone’s sensibility, understandably. But this did not deter them or their vision. The Bechers were awed by the ambition of design invested in objects that were functional tools of the industrial landscape; they were enraptured by the imagination and effort invested in composing the perfunctory.
Hilla and Bernd Becher also sensed the cultural value of the likes of the collieries in Wales, while other watched them fall. They understood how these structures were markers on the maps of our age, soon to be erased. “Someone who concerns himself with scorpions must love them to a certain extent. And photography is there precisely to portray what is, not to sort and reproduce only the good and the beautiful”, stated Hilla.
I often wonder what the Bechers would document of our digital age if they were alive: sadly Hilla passed away near the end of last year, Bern in 2007, aged 81 and 75 respectively.
An empty office space, sprinkled with sleek computers slumbering atop linear desks at the break of dawn maybe; scrubby Chinese warehouses stacked with smart devices, just off the production line and freshly boxed for shipping; or perhaps the tools fuelling our vast electrical appetites now: static wind turbines, enervated energy grids, or thundering power plants. All of them fixed, purposely static.
Who knows? What is for certain though is that the Bechers marvelled where others might only have overlooked as mundane. With clarity and objectivity, they rendered beauty in places where it should have few expectations. And in the end, criticism of their work did not concern either of them – they were as detached in their reactions to commentary, as they were in their working methods. Their legacy is assured, and their influence lives on in the work of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, and Candida Hoffer. “The question if this is a work of art or not is not very important for us”, they said. “Probably it is situated in between the established categories. Anyway the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it”.
By NJ McGarrigle