Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work
By Susanne Lange
Translated by Jeremy Gaines
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007
By Bernd and Hilla Becher
The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2007
Reviewed by David Grandorge
It is not often that one meets an architect not familiar with the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Their cool, haunting imagery holds sway over a particular section of the profession for whom a studied formal abstraction is fundamental. In recent years, their oeuvre has been referenced directly by Florian Beigel, Caruso/St John, Sergison/Bates and 6A architects to name but a few contemporary practitioners in thrall to the Bechers’ gaze. The fascination with their photography stems not only from an affinity with the Bechers’ typological pre-occupation with the industrial relic, but also the way in which they address issues of seriality, similarity and repetition in their work. There is also apparent a persisting pictorial space in their photographs that has affinities with orthography, the principle representational tool of architecture.
Susanne Lange’s new publication Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work is a significant addition to the large body of publications on the Bechers’ oeuvre released to date. It came about as a result of Susanne Lange meeting with Bernd Becher when organising a series of small monographs on artists for the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt/Main in 1990. As Lange tells it, a nascent interest in the Bechers’ work developed into an ongoing occupation. She pursued initial ideas through a doctoral thesis that evolved into an institutional collaboration whilst working as director of the August Sander Archive. Meetings with the Bechers continued at their home (an old mill in Düsseldorf’s Wittlaer district). This endeavour has resulted in a compelling summation of their life’s work.
The major part of the book is an extended essay by Lange split into thirteen chapters that addresses not only the results of the Bechers’ endeavours but also the artistic, cultural and technical contexts that framed their output. Her introduction sets out four criteria at work in the Bechers’ methodology: the functional and constructive nature of the objects photographed that discerns their formation into groups; the aesthetic form of the objects – their “external shape” - that is reflected through the medium of photography; the photograph itself; and the collation of these photographs in groups and series, emphasising a conceptual framework to their method. These criteria are evident and adhered to from the beginnings of the Bechers’ collaboration without deviation.
The essay begins with short biographies of the Bechers’ lives up until their collaboration. It can be inferred from Lange’s narrative that Bernd’s youthful obsession with the industrial plants that surrounded his home in the Siegerland region held the seeds to the content of their work whilst Hilla’s strong technical training was instrumental in defining its pictorial rigour. Whilst a student of graphic art and typography, Bernd became keenly aware of the closure and demolition of mines in the Siegerland district that commenced in 1953. He began to document the threatened industrial structures in meticulous graphic illustrations that demonstrate an early interest in exact description. Though Bernd had started to use a camera in 1957, working with collage and tableaus of images, it wasn’t until he met Hilla at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf that year (their working collaboration started two years later) that the relative naivety of these images was transcended.
Lange then gives a broad historical account of the early representations of industry and technology, early documentary photography and the development of the aesthetics of industry that were central to the Bechers’ project. She demonstrates that, as part of their teaching activities , the Bechers made ongoing investigations into these traditions – “they concerned themselves specifically with positions that endeavoured, through a discussion of the different phenomena in reality, to achieve a coherent blend of form and content.” (p.16)
As well as historical background, we are treated to an intimate view of the Bechers’ photographic techniques and methods – the operational stuff. Lange exposes the minutiae of their work – the negotiations and permissions at industrial plants, the division of labour, the optimization of workflow, the choosing of vantage points (often raised), the framing of the subject, the exact models of camera and lenses employed, the use of filters to eliminate detail in the sky, the length of exposures (an average of 10 seconds at an aperture of f45) and the sizes and types of paper used. Of particular interest is the discussion of the absence of colour in their oeuvre . This was initially a matter of the expense and light-fastness of colour prints at the time that they embarked on their project, but also the result of the desire for absolute continuity and comparability in the series. Lange cites André Malraux’s ideas about the “imaginary museum” - “black-and-white photography emphasizes the “affinity” of different objects of representation if the reproductions are all presented on the same page.” (p.32)
Lange goes on to discuss the chronology of the oeuvre, the systematic nature of the documentation, the typologies recorded and how they have been organised in to work groups and
“Families of Objects” (p.55) for archiving, exhibition and publication purposes. This represents the major thrust in the Bechers’ work – the systematic identification and objective recording of a typology and its subsequent ordering within an overall structure. Time (chronology) and place (geography) are the variables within any group. Ordering according to type preserves both the visual cohesion of any grouping and the anonymity of the object.
Sandwiched between Lange’s essay and the series of compelling interviews with the Bechers that end the book are 53 beautifully printed duotone plates. These consist of individual portraits and tableaus with groupings of nine, twelve, fifteen, sixteen and thirty images. The tableaus show the Bechers’ work to greatest effect. Their taxonomic language and deadpan expression provoke a pervading sense of melancholy. This is reinforced by our knowledge of the functional redundancy of the objects: they are essentially ruins.
In the context of photography as a fine art or artisan process, the Bechers have been responsible among others for the transfer of the document of the object to the realm of the aesthetic. This has been achieved through the conceptual and visual gravity of their work and the critical alignment of their oeuvre with conceptual and minimal art movements - associations the Bechers’ accept with critical reservation and typical modesty. The practice of photography as a fine art has also been promoted through their teaching. Lange touches on this through a “preliminary attempt at classification” of the Bechers’ students’ work. The production and ideas of the major protagonists of the “Becher School” – Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky – are described with admirable economy. Lange acknowledges the significant shift in their work away from the documentary principle promoted by the Bechers, particularly in Gursky’s work where “photography dissolves in the hubris of inter-media discourse and swiftly becomes painting, graphics or a computer-generated trace.” (p.84)
Hilla Becher’s notes from her travels and the four interviews that conclude the book (with Michael Köhler, James Lingwood, Heinz-Norbert Jocks and Lange herself) are testimony to the Bechers’ intelligence, personal warmth and stoicism. Though the Bechers’ art has a certain aloofness to it, they as people are not. In their interview with Jocks in 2004 they discuss the impact of the global economy on industry in Europe and America with a real sense of loss and demonstrate their informed understanding of the impact of technology on our environment both locally and globally. The Bechers’ work reminds us that the tools of industry that defined and now threaten our existence are beautiful.
Due to Bernd’s untimely death on the 22nd June 2007, Grain Elevators is possibly the last of the Bechers’ serial publications of their typological groupings. The book images are introduced as always with an essay on the function of the typology that alludes to scientific description. There follows 246 duotone plates of the typology taken between 1961 (in the Siegerland district) and 2006 (in France).
The Grain Elevator series differs from others by the Bechers in a few subtle ways. A sub group of the grain elevator typology are concrete silos in which cylindrical forms predominate. The modelling of light over their surface is characterised by an acute softness. As a majority of the grain elevators are sited outside of protected zones, context creeps into the edge of frame and consequently some portraits lose their singularity of expression. Though the light remains diffuse, the viewpoints constant, the images are somehow less austere and less exacting than we have come to expect from the Bechers’ oeuvre. As an individual book, it has less to teach than Lange’s tour de force, but as the last major addition to the Bechers’ archive, it is a compulsory purchase.