“This is about objects, not motifs. The photo is only a substitute for an object; it is unsuitable as a picture in its customary sense.” -Bernd Becher
“One just has to select the right objects and fit them into the picture precisely, then they tell their own story all by themselves.” -Hilla Becher
For 40 years, Hilla and Bernd Becher photographed abandoned industrial sites before they were demolished. They worked in both Europe and the United States to photograph these icons of manufacturing.
Bernd studied painting and typography at Düsseldorf’s Kunstakademie. A photograph of the Eisern ironworks was published in the newspaper Grube Eisernhardter Tiefbay was to most unmemorable.
Bernd saw it as a workmanlike photo that he thought was wonderful. He went back to the plant to draw it. When he arrived, it was gone. By 1957, some of these industrial sites were being demolished and the rest soon would 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 collages of the photos. The result only showed part of the scene. He spliced individual photos into a composite. Better, but it was an imperfect solution.
Hilla Wobeser’s mother was a photographer. She taught her daughter the basics. After finishing school Hilla apprenticed with Walter Eichgrun a third-generation photographer to the Prussian court. Eichgrun educated Hilla in traditional skills. The resulting photos were in Hilla’s words, “direct, descriptive photography … clear, clean images — with a complete tonal range, with appropriate depths — devoted to the subject.” This style was exactly what Bernd was seeking.
When he met Hilla Wobeser, he found a commercial photographer who was also interested in industrial design. Together their creative partnership spanned their lifetimes. They recorded the amazing history of the West’s industrial architecture.
Bernd and Hilla Becher captured the beauty of industrial plants. These were related 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 so much more – through their example and their work they have restored photography to its rightful place as great art. This is neither an idle boast about them, nor an exaggerated claim made purely for the merits of the medium. By using photography to look long and hard — neither minimizing some appearances nor maximizing others — they have shown how a calm, clear and unconditional view of life is so very wonderful.”
Photography or sculpture?
The art of Bernd and Hilla Becher is simple. Their vision can be described as profound. They were inspirational in the objective school of photography.
Early on, the pair moved from their medium format Rolleiflex camera to a large format camera to get the clearest detail possible. Bernd and Hilla Becher saw these industrial structures as the “architecture of engineers.” They wanted their photographs to be seen as what they were; record pictures.
In 1959, Bernd and Hilla Becher traveled around the Ruhr.
They used scaffolds and ladders to get clear camera positions to photograph the plants in front and side elevations. They photographed water towers, gas tanks, winding towers (opening photo, top row, first three images,) and kilns. The photos were like technical drawings.
Bernd and Hilla Becher displayed their photos as typologies. They put photos of similar plants in grids of nine or 15 images (opening photo, top row, last image). Each photo in the grid was 11.75-by-15.75 inches providing amazing detail of each industrial site. Grouped this way, they take on a sculptural quality.
Michael Collins puts the Becher’s work in perspective, writing, “They are the lines on the face of the world. The photographs are portraits of our history. And when the structures have been demolished and grassed over, as though they were never there, the pictures remain.”
Both Bernd and Hilla Becher were professors at the Düsseldorf School of Photography where they influenced a generation of photography. Their students included Thomas Ruff, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.
Hilla Becher video
This under 4-minute video features Hilla Becher talking about her interest in photographing the disappearing industrial plants on film.
Sources: SFMoMA, MoMA, TATE, Michael Collins, ‘The long look’, Tate Research Publication, 2002, accessed 22 July 2022.
Stories about inspirational photographers are in On Photography.