Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Misunderstood Oeuvre

The first posthumous retrospective exhibition of Bernd and Hilla Becher — described as the two “most influential German photographers of the postwar period” in an accompanying monograph — is now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. This monumental show is also the first to include work from their vast personal archives, offering new insights into the artists’ process and their work as individuals. Organized by curator Jeff Rosenheim, the show unfolds over six galleries on the museum’s second floor, showing the development of their iconic typologies of Industrial Revolution-era architecture.

Bernhard “Bernd” Becher (1931-2007) grew up in the thrall of the iron-ore mines that once dominated the landscape of his native Siegerland, Germany; Hilla Wobeser (1934-2015) developed an early interest in photography, leading her to enroll in the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf alongside the young Bernd in 1958. The pair quickly discovered that their personal and artistic interests were complementary and married in 1961. Together, they embarked on a lifelong collaboration, driving across countries in a Volkswagen bus to document an array of vanishing industrial structures: water towers, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, grain elevators, and their ilk, which they displayed in grids grouped by type.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher, “Cooling Tower, Caerphilly, South Wales, Great Britain” (1966), gelatin silver print
14 5/8 × 11 3/4 inches (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, gift of the LeWitt Family, in memory of Bernd and Hilla Becher)

Despite the tremendous success and influence that the Bechers achieved — a level of art-stardom rarely reached by practitioners of photography — their work has often been criticized for its perceived aloofness. They developed a precise visual lexicon, presenting what they called “anonymous sculptures” of industry in a uniform light, figuratively and literally: in their mature work, each structure is shot head-on under a blank sky with a crisp focus. Every building occupies the same position and space in the photograph, de-emphasizing the surrounding landscape. The composition is simple, the repetition heavy. Human beings never enter the frame. As a result, recent critics have deemed it “detached” and “outmoded,” doomed to cultural obsolescence.

Unfortunately, the exhibition is somewhat complicit in this narrative, perpetuating what I would argue is a major misconception about the Bechers’ oeuvre: that it is “impersonal,” as the monograph describes it, or “uninflected,” as it quotes the photographer Stephen Shore as saying. The exhibition’s central wall text notes that the work is “seemingly objective” (my emphasis), but, outside of the monograph (in which Rosenheim briefly addresses the issue), the exhibition fails to consider that this “objectivity” is only surface-level — that the work is deeply personal, even if its apparent uniformity claims otherwise. How can the Bechers’ style be “authorless ” when it is so immediately identifiable and unique? Indeed, it is arguably more recognizable than the work of their artistic progenitor, August Sander; the aestheticized grids of water towers practically shout their photographers’ names; Google “black and white industrial photograph” and nothing even remotely similar appears.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, “Water Towers (Germany, France, Belgium, United States, and Great Britain)” 1963–80, 16 Gelatin silver prints
15 7/8 × 12 3/16 inches each
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Warner Communications Inc. Purchase Fund, 1980)

This is because the Bechers developed their own visual code for representing information as simply as possible. In 1974, they explained, “We wanted to provide a viewpoint or rather a grammar for people to understand and compare different structures …. We are interested in how people see, we do not want them to look with our eyes but for themselves.” The Bechers tried to find a way to hold a mirror up to these structures, but they created that mirror themselves. They chose certain parameters as “optimal” based on a particular 19th-century style of photography — for example, not shooting in conditions that would produce harsh shadows. Photographing a building at a perfect 90-degree angle is just as much a “viewpoint” as a bird’s-eye or worm’s-eye perspective; reality does not exist under a perpetually even sky.

The work, even in its starkness, discovers an elemental beauty of geometry. The lush prints betray the pure thrill that their creators must have found in the shapes they captured so obsessively — the way that light interacts with architecture in all of its intricate configurations, through subtle tonal variances. At the massive scale we encounter in the exhibition, the work inspires the kind of terrifying awe that someone may feel looking up at the concrete skeleton of a skyscraper under construction. Roland Barthes’s concept of the punctum, something in a photograph that pierces the viewer, is at play in these sumptuous prints, and in both the tiny details and structures that exceed human scale.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, “Gravel Plants (Germany and Switzerland)” (1988–2001), 15 gelatin silver prints, 15 15/16 × 12 3/8 inches (each courtesy The Walther Collection)

Their typologies evoke the Age of Enlightenment’s impulse toward taxonomy and classification, its desire to scientifically categorize reality. At the same time, the grids are haunted by a perversion of this trend, which measured the circumference of human skulls, reduced human beings to hierarchical orders, and, in World War II, industrialized the process of murder. Despite the Bechers’ problematic treatment of Nazism as the Past-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named, it is no coincidence that they witnessed the imagery of fascism and concluded the opposite: there is no “ideal” water tower.

What the Bechers captured with remarkable alacrity — and what makes their work absolutely vital to the history of the medium — is modernity’s introduction of a new, endless repeatability of information through technology. The typologies highlight not only repetitions in their subject matter, but also variations: the human individuality and idiosyncrasy apparent in the varying shapes of the water towers, the ways the curving ducts of the blast furnaces fold differently in each articulation, echoing the uniqueness of anatomy. Just as the world was being consumed by the “growing totalitarianism of the grid,” which divided native land into lots to be sold off and allowed consumable goods to be transported across oceans with unprecedented speed, the Bechers proposed a way through it, showing us the flawed humanity of our creation.

Bernd and Hilla Becher continues at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through November 6. This exhibition was curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel curator in charge of the Department of Photographs, with assistance from Virginia McBride, research assistant in the Department of Photographs.


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