Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd and Hilla Becher spent 50 years, from 1957 to Bernd’s death in 2007 photographing and documenting unloved and threatened buildings, mostly industrial, initially in their native Germany and latterly in other parts of Europe and the USA. My first encounter with their work was a book illustration (unreferenced, before embarking on this course) of one of their composite prints of timber-framed large houses, representative sample below:

This has resonance for me in my primary career as a building surveyor. I have had to record buildings (including UK framed buildings) by measured drawings and photographs and I understand the way these buildings ‘work’. Viewing a group of individual but very similar images, such as this points up the similarities (function, shape and major structural members) which are important and the detail differences (window positions, minor structural members) which are less critical and therefore accidental and individual.

The same kind of analysis can be made of their composites (which they called ‘typologies’) of industrial structures such as pitheads, winding gear or water towers, example below:

Their systematic survey and recording has a similar motive to Jimmy Forsyth’s images of Scotswood Road and Gateshead, a feeling that it is important to record a way of life that was threatened and vanishing, which could be dubbed the Joni Mitchell Motivation (… you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone). As Bernd Becher explained in a 2005 interview (Sign and Sight, 2005):

we simply thought that we would be considerably poorer in Europe if we didn’t have the sacred buildings of earlier epochs. It’s still possible to experience the Gothic period, not to mention the Romantic. Only nothing remains of the industrial age. So we thought that our photos would give the viewer the chance to go back to a time that is gone forever.

I have chosen to view these images and others from the MoMA, Guggenheim and Tate websites because they are relevant to Assignment 2 (Collecting) in which we are asked for a set of images of similar subjects with uniformity of focal length, aperture and viewpoint. The Bechers appear to have looked (within each set) for uniformity of viewpoint, subject, apparent size and weather conditions.

The work is worthy, it is outstanding record and documentary photography but I wonder whether it is ‘art’.

Reinhold Misselbeck, writing in Icons of Photography (Stepan (ed) 2005, 154) takes the view that its status has shifted over time, ‘… but this shows how far photography has come since 1981, how much our understanding of documentary photography has changed. In the meantime, it is apparent that it is the concept that makes the Bechers artists, and that their documentation is no detriment to this.‘ He takes a similar line in 20th Century Photography (Museum Ludwig Cologne 1996, 53)

Charlotte Cotton (2014, 82) regards the Bechers as highly influential in the shaping of contemporary deadpan photography. She notes their work appearing in the 1975 touring exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of Man-altered Landscapes‘ which highlighted the implications of contemporary urban generation and the ecological consequences of industry, and considers it significant that these issues were raised in the context of the art gallery rather than elsewhere.

The last word goes to Badger (2010, 70)

The typological approach they revived has become almost ubiquitous in what one might term ‘conceptual’ photography, and shows little sign of abating in popularity. It influenced their pupils at the Düsseldorf School of Art, several of whom have gone on …  But none followed the Bechers’ advice more rigorously than they themselves. Find a subject and pursue it obsessively for your whole career.

References

Badger, G. (2010) The Genius of Photography London: Quadrille

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art, 3rd edition. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd

Guggenheim Foundation (2016) Bernd and Hilla BecherWater Towers (Wassertürme) [online] at: http://www.guggenheim.org/new-york/collections/collection-online/artwork/500

Museum Ludwig Cologne (1996) 20th Century Photography. Köln: Benedikt Taschen Verlag

Museum of Modern Art (s.d.) Bernd Becher German 1931-2007 [online] at: http://www.moma.org/collection/artists/422?locale=en&page=1 (accessed 3 April 2016)(there is a similar page for Hilla Becher, referencing the same images)

Sign and Sight (2005) High precision industrial age souvenirs [online] at: http://www.signandsight.com/features/338.html (accessed 3 April 2016)

Stepan, P. (ed) (2005) Icons of Photography The 20th Century. Munich: Prestel Verlag

Tate (s.d.) Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher 1931–2007, 1934–2015 [online] at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bernd-becher-and-hilla-becher-718 (accessed 3 April 2016)

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