During their almost fifty-year partnership beginning in 1959, Bernd and Hilla Becher pursued a project of systematically photographing industrial structures. Documenting previously commonplace edifices such as water towers, coal bunkers, blast furnaces and gravel plants—first in Germany and later across Europe and the United States—the Bechers challenged the perceived gap between fine-art and documentary photography. Following a major Becher retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2022, this will be the gallery’s second exhibition focused on the Bechers. Encompassing thirty-one single prints and two sixteen-part typologies depicting a range of industrial forms, the exhibition underlines how the Becher’s objective style resonated with the serial approach of Minimal and Conceptual art.
The Bechers described the structures that made up the industrial landscape they sought to document as “anonymous sculptures,” and this anonymity informed their objective photographic style. Avidly researching the function and construction of each structure to effectively illustrate its form, the Bechers approached their subject and their project with scientific precision. Each photograph conforms to one of three views: landscape, individual structure, or detail, and each form is positioned squarely within the frame. The purpose of their rigorous method is evident in the typologies––sequences of images grouped to draw out the similarities between forms. In Grain Elevators, 1977–1991, for example, the artists have combined sixteen views of grain elevators in the United States, Germany and France, allowing the form of the structures to unwind and reveal its function through comparison of unique and ubiquitous features. As evidenced in the extended period over which the photographs for this typology were taken, the Bechers would spend years fine-tuning a typology, switching individual prints in and out and rearranging them until the grouping achieved klang – a total harmony, in a visual sense.
The Becher’s photographs stand as monuments to a landscape that had once symbolized prosperity, but by the 1970s and 1980s was rapidly disappearing. Their exacting and tireless approach and their preference for photographing structures in active use caused their inadvertent documentation of not only the forms of “anonymous sculptures,” but the unravelling of an entire infrastructure.