Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work

I think at this point in the realm of contemporary German photography it would be nearly impossible not mention the influence of Bernd and Hilla Becher have had on at least two generations of photographers. Since the passing of Bernd Becher on Friday June 22nd 2007, I thought it appropriate to mention the book Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work published by MIT Press.

Both Bernd and Hilla were born at a time (1931 and 1934 respectively) where as teenagers they lived within a devastated post war Germany. Born in the Siegerland, Bernd experienced first hand the landscape of the German iron industry as a child. In photography, they focused their early attentions towards the architecture of that same coal industry which they saw as examples of a pre-Nazi Germany and a steadfast foundation held against the reconstruction architecture that was taking place.

Using August Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time 1929), Karl Blossfelt’s plant forms and Albert Renger-Patzsch’s machine studies as early guides, they developed a working method of classification of various architectural structures they referred to as “Typologies.” Exhaustively working from subject to subject (cooling towers, blast furnaces, gas tanks, etc.) and by often displaying their results in large grids, they came to recognition in the art world as being minimalist or conceptual artists. This was a reading of the work that was far from their original supposed architectural mission.

Their approach to photographing was to reduce every aspect of personal style in order to emphasize the impersonal aesthetics of the buildings. This included the necessity to photography the structures straight on and from a height that provided a neutral vantage point. They look neither up nor down at their subjects, thus reducing the potential for politicizing these industrial structures. The 1920’s and 30’s depictions of industry celebrated it and held it up as signs of political or modern power. The Bechers neither monumentalize nor renunciate. This approach brings forth a notion in the viewer to compare one structure to the next. One pleasure of their work is following their direction.

That notion of comparison is what sets the Bechers apart from other photographers interested in types like August Sander. With Sander we look at his portraits one at a time and there is a clear division between each image. They are separate worlds that share common threads of humanity. The Becher’s types are linked physically by their presence as series. To see only one image on display in a show would amount to seeming like staring at an orphan. This, of course, is primarily because we know their working method and have been conditioned (or poisoned). To the unconditioned, could one photo from their work stand individually like a Charles Sheeler photograph?

Aside from their personal work, they were also the team behind the famed photography program at the Staatliche Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf whose star pupils included Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Demand, Candida Hofer and Andreas Gursky. Their Freie Kunst (free or open art) program at the Kunstakademie was based on a master-student relationship. Although only Bernd was officially employed as a professor, the importance of Hilla’s contributions to their collaborative art led them to often conduct critiques of student’s work in their home. They served as individual mentors to students and only at their sole discretion did they then granted a diploma after they felt the student had achieved independence. Andreas Gursky was awarded this distinction in 1987 after six years of classes with Bernd Becher.

There have been several volumes published over the years of the Becher’s work. The MIT Press has been responsible for the publication of at least seven titles. Grain Elevators (2006), Industrial Landscapes (2002), Framework Houses (2000), Water Towers (1988), Cooling Towers (2006), Typologies (2004) and the most recent, Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work (2007). I think several, if not all of these titles, had originally been released by Schirmer Mosel in past years.

All of the titles follow the same sense of design down to similar trim sizes and stark white dust jackets and typography. The printing in all is very well done.

The difficulty I have with most of their books (admittedly I only have two) is that the experience of looking at this work in book-form reduces the power of discovery that is evoked when the work is seen in a grid. I have seen shows of theirs where the work was not in a grid and the same sense of loss was felt. I’m sure many readers have many different experiences when looking at these books but I also find it difficult to keep from establishing a steady page turning rhythm that becomes precisely metronomic.

The book Typologies published by MIT in 2004 does present the work in grids. Out of all of the books, this is my favorite. The only problem is that, now that you have a dozen or so images on each page, each image is reproduced too small. One only gets the basic essence of the works at those thumbnail sizes. To be successful, I imagine the book would have to be approximately 4 x 5 foot in height and length (with a special stand to hold it vertically). Perhaps MIT Press could take one from the playbook of Taschen in this special case. Regardless, it is a beautiful book well worth looking for.

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work by Susanne Lange is the most recent of MIT’s Becher publications. Lange, who was given access to the photographer’s archives, analyzes the work and method of their fifty year partnership.

Although slightly light on the number of reproductions, 53, its purpose is for study where as the other titles are for the photographs. For me the most interesting aspect is the last third of the book where we are treated to several in-depth interviews and a section of travel notes from Hilla.

Tuesday, September 27, 1983 (Alabama, United States)

Today was a grim day. Not only did we have lots of bad luck but we also miscalculated the weather and were too late to notice that the afternoon would have been perfect for taking photographs.

In the morning we start to develop yesterday’s films. In the daytime we have the problem of not being able to get the bathroom properly dark. Apart from the bathroom window we also block the corridor window with the second mattress from the car. Around midday we notice the mattress has slipped and has started to burn (from the lamp underneath). It looks harmless and we pour water over it, but it continues to smolder within, Bernd then wets it thoroughly and places it on the car as it already stinks so terribly inside…

The second piece of bad luck: all the exposures of a shot in Fairfield are clouded, almost black. After lengthy attempts to reconstruct the situation we come to the conclusion that Bernd’s brand new bellows have detached themselves from the frame perhaps owing to the heat. Bernd has had enough. “For all the creature comforts, this trip is simply not worth it.”

What is additionally interesting about this book is that within the plates section, similar structures are paired on facing pages but the span of time between the two exposures is often many decades. The consistency towards the photographic approach even after 30 or 40 years is remarkable. Especially when you read that they eventually were working with two cameras in different places on the same site. Their approach was so uniform it became one vision shared by two.

With the recent loss of Bernd, this almost fifty year collaboration has come to an end. I find it fascinating that the two could sustain a project for so long and keep working within such strict parameters.

I find it sad to say that we may never see this kind of study achieved in photography again.

Book Available Here (Life and Work)

Book Available Here (Typologies)

Book Available Here (Industrial Landscapes)