As a child the photographer Bernd Becher (1931-2007) couldn’t help but notice the mines and smelting works close to his family home in Siegen (North Rhine-Westphalia). His interest, perhaps dormant during his painting and graphic art studies (1953-63) in Stuttgart and Dussseldorf, returned in the late 1950s when he had started photographing industrial sites as research material for a painting project. In Dusseldorf he met and married fellow student Hilla Wobeser (b1934); they worked together for almost of entire second half of the 20th century creating a vast photographic archive of industrial sites, buildings and structures in northern Europe, Britain and the USA.
At first the impulse appears to have been that of the collector driven by a need to document a disappearing element of material culture, but other layers of significance occurred to the Bechers once the collection grew. Interviewed by the Getty museum in 2008[i] Hilla Becher recalled the need to arrange any collection, be it “beer mugs” or photographs: the collection was becoming “chaotic” she remembered and needed some sort of ordering system. (We) “… put images on the floor… something happened, they started to dance.”
Organising the pictures into grids permitted a systematic method of presentation that showed the collection in a de-contextualised way and led the Bechers to be recognized as conceptual artists as well as field photographer/collectors. In turn, the grid presentation change in their work influenced the evolution of a more precise specification of the photographic “capture” process itself in order to ensure the aspiration of objectivity was consistently attained. As Hilla Becher put it in the Getty interview: “The photographs needed to be neutral with no bright sun, no snow, no moonlight.” Using a view camera and a slightly elevated viewpoint, in the same season and at the same time of day the Bechers created their archive. The objective approach to creating a uniform series of pictures stripped of all sentiment, without any distracting variation in content, draws one’s attention to the form of these buildings and their cultural materiality. Each picture adds to our understanding of the generic type. Their pictures are rendered like engineering diagrams, however they clearly depict large scale human artifacts that have been worked hard for specific purposes and often look to be near the end of their “useful” life – although the pictures frequently question that assumption. The Becher archive actually consists of two types of picture: the frontal, tightly cropped elevation of a structure that ends up in a grid presentation and the contextual long shot which shows a grouping of industrial buildings often including the landscape setting.
In so far as a large part of 20th century photography is first-person subjective (I see … I interpret artistically), the Becher pictures are atypical. In one sense of course they are they work of two human subjects, the Bechers, in another sense the subjective presence is withdrawn and the pictures are as neutral and objective as possible. Of course their forebears August Sander (1876-1964) and Albert Renger-Patszch (1897-1966)[ii] pioneered this analytical approach in both serial format and objective/neutral format – the former with ordinary people and the latter with ordinary objects, but the Bechers took things further.
The Bechers are therefore the antithesis of the orthodox architectural photographer whose brief is to glamourise and to persuade using a “hero shot” to make the building into something that it isn’t. In fact Bernd Becher’s take on the architectural implications of their photographic work (or absence of it) is interesting. Interviewed at the time of a major Berlin retrospective in 2005[iii] he said:
As time went by we developed a sort of ideology without ever formulating it as such. I’ve always said that we are documenting the sacred buildings of Calvinism. Calvinism rejects all forms of art and therefore never developed its own architecture. The buildings we photograph originate directly from this purely economic thinking.
And why “sacred?” :
… we simply thought that we would be considerably poorer in Europe if we didn’t have the sacred buildings of earlier epochs … nothing remains of the industrial age. So we thought that our photographs would give the viewer the chance to go back to a time that is gone forever.
As well as being chroniclers of the industrial age, the Bechers are recognized as conceptual artists and, perhaps above all, they were tremendously successful teachers. In the years between 1976 and 1996 when they taught at the Dusseldorf Art Academy their students included Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Axel Hutte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.