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James Welling: "Bernd & Hilla Becher"

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Grain Elevators, 1977-91. 16 gelatin silver prints, each: 11 7/8 x 15 ¾ inches, overall: 74 3/8 x 90 1/8 inches. Signed by Max Becher and estate stamped. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. Photo: Steven Probert. 

A few days before Bernd and Hilla Becher’s exhibition opened at Paula Cooper Gallery, an American spacecraft set down near the south pole of the moon, the first American lander on the moon since the Apollo 17 mission fifty-two years ago. I mention this because in 1969 when Time magazine asked the Bechers what contemporary object they would most like to photograph, they chose the Apollo lunar module. 

From the mid 1960s into the 2000s, this German husband-and-wife team produced austere sets of serial black and white photographs depicting utilitarian structures: water towers, steel plants, grain elevators, wood frame houses, gas tanks, mining buildings. The Bechers are celebrated for their single-minded devotion to these unadorned industrial subjects, and the lunar module dovetails perfectly with their established interests.

The main room at Paula Cooper features rows of evenly spaced, luminous 19 3/4-by-23 5/8-inch prints drawn from seven series. Two grids of sixteen smaller photographs, each group devoted to a particular type of structure, hang in the smaller front space. These grids are what the Bechers called typologies and represent their most enduring contribution to the history of photography.

In the main room, elegant municipal water towers and coal winding towers anchor the left wall. Dramatic blast furnaces command the back of the gallery while circular gas tanks and large grain elevators hang on the right. Monumental coal breakers and coal bunkers occupy the final wall. The prints in this room are hung in a single row, spaced generously. This makes them easier to read and recalls the 1989 Becher exhibition in the old Dia building on 22nd Street. Before that show, which contained only single photographs, the Bechers’ near-annual exhibitions at Sonnabend Gallery on West Broadway were packed with gridded typologies.

In his 1980 essay “Picturing Vision,” art historian Joel Snyder describes what he calls the imaginative “rules of attending” that photographers—his example is Walker Evans—use to make their photographs. According to Snyder, serious photographers are guided by rules or lists of subjects and formal styles they “consult” when they photograph. Understanding these rules can help the viewer gain a deeper appreciation of the photographs. If the Bechers had such rules, they surely would have included an inventory of possible subjects, details of camera framing, lighting, and weather, composition ideas, and directives for printing and arranging prints on the wall. 

Camera framing and weather are perhaps the most important of the Becher rules. The subject must be dead center and totally visible. Foreground and background are also controlled by camera placement. In some photographs the camera is at a normal, five-foot height. In others, it’s twenty feet up, to clear low trees or fences that would mar the unobstructed view. 

Every industrial subject is situated against a blank white sky. To obtain this uniform tone the Bechers paid careful attention to weather conditions and time of day. Water Tower, Saint-Aubin-lès-Elbeuf, F (2012) was photographed just before sundown to minimize shadows. Other water towers appear to have been photographed under hazy, mid-day conditions. In many of the subjects the Bechers photograph, dark shadow areas lie adjacent to middle gray and bright regions. Separating these values while retaining a normal look is a very tricky darkroom problem. The Bechers’ preternatural attention to meteorological lighting and their careful film development produced negatives that compressed these sometimes challenging tonal ranges into printable images. 

The Bechers’ precise camera position and soft lighting give the prints extraordinary luminosity and definition. Max Becher once told me that the goal his parents set for themselves was to create photographs so detailed and sharp that the industrial structures they recorded could be reconstructed from their photographic documents. To this end the Bechers labored with film, lenses, tripods, filters, and photographic paper to gain the upper hand over the climatic and geographic obstacles they encountered on the way to creating their exacting works. 

Seven tour de force views of blast furnaces hold the far wall of the gallery. The high camera position for these views makes the prints appear as if they were made—impossibly—with an aerial drone. Today’s common, nearly weightless photography drones are hundreds of pounds lighter than the sturdy Gitzo tripod, large-format film holders, and gleaming, metal Plaubel 13-by-18-centimeter-view camera the Bechers lugged up countless flights of stairs to secure their magnificent panoramas.

In the liminal space between the front and back galleries hangs a single photograph, Industrial Landscapes: Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, USA (1986). The print recapitulates a similar, very famous photograph made in Bethlehem by Walker Evans fifty years earlier. The Evans view is so celebrated that countless photographers, me included, have trekked up that hilly cemetery to stand where Evans stood. In the Evans photograph the cemetery, worker housing, and the Bethlehem Steel plant are visually pancaked by the photographer’s extremely long telephoto lens. By contrast, the Bechers’ photograph separates the cemetery, houses, and steel plant with a “normal” focal length lens on the front of their camera. 

If we apply Snyder’s rules of attending to both compositions, differences emerge. The Evans photograph reads, unsurprisingly, like 1930s Farm Security Administration propaganda—death, home, work, all smashed into his manic composition. Judging from the other photographs Evans took in the cemetery that day, the shoot was typical for him. As was his method, he used multiple cameras and lenses and worked in a manic fever that generated different views that he would later crop. The Bechers instead worked methodically, and their photograph exemplifies conceptual and formal clarity. 

The front room contains two typologies, Grain Elevators (1977–91) and Gravel Plants (1987–92). At a Becher conference at the Metropolitan Museum a few years ago, I was surprised to hear participants discussing the playfulness and levity they saw in the typologies. It never occurred to me that what I saw as solemn arrangements could be witty. But in the typologies at Paula Cooper, sonic and linguistic humor collide onomatopoeically in the “grrrr” sounds that open their titles, suggesting rattling rocks tumbling in the gravel plant as much as hissing wheat granules flowing down the grain elevator.

I tried to continue the analogy between gravel and grain etymologically but discovered that no linguistic connection exists. After sitting for a moment my unconscious kicked upstairs a memory from three decades ago. For a few months in the 1990s I sublet an apartment near the Bechers’ loft on Crosby Street. One evening while walking my dog Zola, I saw Hilla and Bernd approaching me on the sidewalk. I stopped and chatted with Hilla about a new medium-format camera she was testing. Bernd was silent at first, then he smiled. He slowly stooped down and growled at Zola. Her ears flew up and she growled back aggressively. A standoff ensued between photographer and dog, “grrr, grrr, grrr, grrr.”

Leaving the exhibition I considered the Bechers’ legacy. In the photography community, the “Dusseldorf School” refers to a sizable group of students—Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and others—who studied with Bernd and Hilla Becher at the Dusseldorf Art Academy. With few exceptions the photographs this “school” produced were serious typologies of a wide range of subjects. An American student who studied for a time at the Academy told me that Bernd urged his students to “find their subject” and, by implication, stick with it. The Bechers of course followed this rule for decades. What was unspoken but obvious from their zest for photography was the equally important rule: enjoy yourself and laugh every day.

— James Welling