In the photograph: Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015)

“It’s about objects, not patterns. The photo is only a substitute object; it is not suitable as a picture in its usual sense. -Bernd Becher

“You just have to select the right objects and fit them precisely into the picture, and then they tell their own story on their own.” -Hilla Becher

For 40 years, Hilla and Bernd Becher photographed abandoned industrial sites before they were demolished. They worked in Europe and the United States to photograph these icons of manufacturing.

Painter

Bernd studied painting and typography at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf. A photograph of the Eisern ironworks was published in the newspaper Grube Eisernhardter Tiefbay was most immemorial.

Bernd saw in it a professional photo that he found marvelous. He went back to the factory to draw it. When he arrived, he had disappeared. In 1957, some of these industrial sites were being demolished and the rest would soon be.

Bernd began photographing industrial structures with a 35mm camera to use as guides for his drawings. He realized that the pictures showed much more detail than he could draw.

Bernd Becher gave up making drawings. He turned to photo collages. The result showed only part of the scene. He merged individual photos into a composite. Better, but it was an imperfect solution.

Photographer

Hilla Wobeser’s mother was a photographer. She taught her daughter the basics. After completing her studies, Hilla apprenticed with Walter Eichgrun, a third-generation photographer at the Prussian court. Eichgrun trained Hilla in traditional skills. The resulting photos were, in Hilla’s words, “straightforward, descriptive photography…clear, crisp images—with full tonal range, with appropriate depths—devoted to the subject.” This style was exactly what Bernd was looking for.

Hilla and Bernd Becher photograph an industrial installation.

Partnership

When he meets Hilla Wobeser, he finds a commercial photographer who is also interested in industrial design. Together, their creative partnership lasted a lifetime. They recorded the amazing history of industrial architecture in the West.

Bernd and Hilla Becher captured the beauty of industrial facilities. These were linked in both form and function. The plants represented the effect of industry on economies and the environment.

In an essay on the TATE Museum website, Michael Collins wrote: “They have contributed much more – through their example and their work they have restored photography to its rightful place as a great art. This is neither idle boasting about them, nor an exaggerated claim made solely for the merits of the medium. Using photography to look long and hard – without minimizing some appearances or maximizing others – they showed how wonderful a calm, clear, and unconditional view of life is.

Photography or sculpture?

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s art is simple. Their vision can be described as profound. They inspired the objective school of photography.

Early on, the pair switched from their medium format Rolleiflex camera to a large format camera to get the clearest details possible. Bernd and Hilla Becher considered these industrial structures as “the architecture of engineers”. They wanted their photographs to be seen for what they were; save pictures.

In 1959, Bernd and Hilla Becher toured the Ruhr area.

They used scaffolding and ladders to get clear camera positions to photograph the plants in front and side elevation. They photographed water towers, gas tanks, winding towers (opening photo, top row, first three images) and ovens. The photos were like technical drawings.

Bernd and Hilla Becher presented their photos in the form of typologies. They put photos of similar plants into grids of nine or 15 images (opening photo, top row, last image). Each photo in the grid measured 11.75 x 15.75 inches, providing stunning detail at each industrial site. Grouped in this way, they take on a sculptural quality.

Industrial facades, 1978-1992

Michael Collins puts Becher’s work into perspective by writing, “These are the lines on the face of the world. The photographs are portraits of our history. And when the structures have been demolished and covered with grass, as if they were never there, the images remain.

Teachers

Both Bernd and Hilla Becher were professors at the Düsseldorf School of Photography where they influenced a generation of photographers. Their students included Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.

Video by Hilla Becher

This less than 4 minute video features Hilla Becher talking about her interest in photographing vanishing industrial plants on film.

Sources: SFMoMA, MoMA, TATE, Michael Collins, “The long look”, Tate Research Publication, 2002, consulted on July 22, 2022.

Stories about inspiring photographers are in On Photography.


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