A gritty industrial past was brought to life in Hilla and Bernd Becher’s photos
Hilla becher full
A grid of strange creatures is pinned to the wall, each one similar and yet dissimilar to its neighbours. The typological arrangement encourages us to study them dispassionately, almost scientifically, but it also reveals their aesthetic plenitude. They are as beautiful as butterflies in an entomologist’s case – as beautiful and as dead, for these pit heads, cooling towers and blast furnaces are worked by no miners or engineers. No smoke rises from these chimneys, and the factory windows are blank or broken. This is the world of the Bechers – our world.
Hilla Becher (opposite) recently died aged 81. She was one of the most influential photographers in the world, especially in the field of architecture. From around 1960 she and her husband Bernd produced an unrivalled body of work documenting the industrial architecture of the West, just as it began to disappear. The couple also trained a generation of famous photographers at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, including Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. They had an enormous impact on their students: Struth described Hilla as ‘uncompromising but open-minded and gentle … always curious, not sentimental but loving’. Through their own work, and that of their so-called Düsseldorf School, it would not be an exaggeration to say they changed the way we see the world.
Hilla Becher (née Wobeser) was 10 years old when the Allied leaders convened in her hometown to finalise the division of Germany – as a result of which Potsdam, lying just to the west of Berlin, was ceded to the Russians. Becher’s mother and uncle were both photographers; her mother bought her her first plate camera, and after her uncle left for West Germany, she had the use of his darkroom. In 1951 she was forced to leave school for disciplinary reasons. She was evidently a wilful child, remembering in an interview: ‘I thought after the war: God, my parents have such sentimental ideals of landscapes, beauty, music. I found their ideas ridiculous, even idiotic. I also found it funny to go back to school in 1945 and to embroider handkerchiefs in needlework class. That was weird.’ Instead, she began an apprenticeship with a prominent local photographer named Walter Eichgrun, whose dedication to his craft – and specialisation in architectural photography – helped set her on the path that she would follow for a lifetime.
‘He may have lacked the technical skills and indeed the conceptual interests of Hilla (as she later recalled); instead Bernd supplied the obsessive drive behind their project’
In 1954 Hilla qualified as a photographer, and went with her mother to Hamburg. Then in 1957 she got a job working for an advertising agency in Düsseldorf, on the edge of the industrial region of the Ruhr. Coming from Rococo Potsdam, the industrial landscape was, she later said, ‘new and alien for me, it was like an adventure’. It was here that she met Bernd, who was studying painting at the Kunstakademie at the time. Bernd came from Siegert, also in the Ruhr, and many of his family members had worked in mining or steel. Noting the rapid decline of local industry after the foundation of the EEC, he set out to record the region’s vanishing structures with his pencil. But he couldn’t capture the easily demolished buildings quickly enough, and so he turned to photography, using the results as the basis for drawings and montages. He may have lacked the technical skills and indeed the conceptual interests of Hilla (as she later recalled); instead he supplied the obsessive drive behind their project.
In 1958, Hilla also enrolled at the Kunstakademie, and the next year the pair began their collaboration, which would last until Bernd’s death in 2007. They married in 1961, and soon began travelling Germany in their VW van (after 1964 accompanied by their son), systematically recording water towers, winding towers, coal bunkers, lime kilns and gas tanks. Later journeys would take them across Europe and America.
Hilla Becher: 2 September 1934 - 10 October 2015
Bernd Becher: 20 August 1931- 22 June 2007
Erasmus Prize, 2002
Hasselblad Award, 2004
Framework Houses, 1959-73 Water Towers, 1963-93 Fforchaman Colliery, Rhondda Valley, Wales, UK, 1966 Winding Towers, 1966-97 Knutange, Lorraine, France, 1971
Hanover Mine 1/2/5, Bochum-Hordel, Ruhr, 1973
Coal Mine, Bear Valley, Schuylkill County, 1974
Consolidation Mine, Gelsenkirchen, Ruhr;
Coal Tipple, Goodspring, Pennsylvania, 1975
Water Towers, 1988
‘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’
Using stepladders and cumbersome, large format cameras, the Bechers always depicted their quarry from a perpendicular, elevated position, reducing perspectival convergence to a minimum. The uniformly overcast conditions produce an even light that reveals a wealth of detail on the fine-grained prints, and the close cropping and blank skies deprive the buildings of their context. Indeed, organised in their customary typological grids, buildings from France, Germany, Britain and the USA meet in silent conversation. Hilla said, ‘By placing several cooling towers side by side something happened, something like tonal music; you don’t see what makes the objects different until you bring them together, so subtle are their differences.’
Reactions were not always so appreciative. Critics were unsure whether the work was documentary or art – a distinction that the Bechers dismissed as unimportant. In fact, they made hay with this ambiguity, titling their first major show Anonymous Sculptures. This set them squarely in the contemporary context of conceptual photography, which had reopened the question of photography’s status. However, unlike Ed Ruscha’s seemingly artless images of the Sunset Strip, the Bechers did not ‘deskill’ – quite the opposite, since their images evinced a craft that would have been more at home in the 19th century. This double coding would have a powerful influence on their students, who have not always been able, however, to imitate the Bechers’ balancing act quite so gracefully.
‘In 1931, Bertolt Brecht had objected that a photograph of a factory could tell you nothing about the human relations lying behind it. Walter Benjamin took this further: photography was dangerously complicit in commodity fetishism’
The work of the Bechers did not just look back to the architecture of the industrial past; it also re-engaged with a mode of vision that had developed in Weimar Germany before being interrupted in 1933. The photography of the so-called New Objectivity was cool and affectless; it presented the world without the subjective intensity that had characterised Pictorialism or the dramatic angles of the Constructivists. But in turning back to the examples of Karl Blossfeldt, August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch, the Bechers also risked the same criticisms that their precursors’ work had elicited. In 1931, Bertolt Brecht had objected that a photograph of a factory could tell you nothing about the human relations lying behind it. Walter Benjamin took this further: photography was dangerously complicit in commodity fetishism.
However, rather than seeing the Bechers’ work as a simple continuation of New Objectivity, with all the problems that would entail, it might be more productive to see it as bookending an earlier German engagement with industrial architecture, the collection of images presented by Gropius in the 1913 Werkbund annual. These photographs of American silos and grain elevators had an electrifying effect on the European avant-garde, from Sant’Elia to Le Corbusier. They seemed at the time to be postcards from a concrete atlantis, to borrow Banham’s phrase – a really exciting land of high-tech buildings, to be regarded with the same awe that one might view the pyramids. But unlike the pyramids, these were models for future construction.
Viewed once more from the terminus of the Western industrial era, such images have an entirely different significance – one that is haunted by a faint echo of that earlier and ultimately confounded moment of hope. This could provoke regret, but Hilla demurred: ‘Our images are melancholic? I’m sorry, but that I can’t understand at all.’ In capturing a moment of decline, the Bechers might instead fulfil another of Benjamin’s ideas: that capitalism’s discarded remnants become available for reuse. They certainly helped save some of their subjects, which were preserved as a result of their depiction: the rest live on in these unforgettable images.
Illustration by Alice Moloney