Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The German artist, dead at age 81, was half of a duo that changed the pitch of architectural photography in the 1960s.
Hilla Becher, one half of the collaborative duo that changed the pitch of architectural photography in the 1960s and ‘70s, has died at the age of 81. The German photographer and her husband, Bernd Becher, who died eight years ago, launched a study of the industrial buildings of Europe and, as a result, carved out an “objective” course in photography.
Today, the Bechers’ photographs only seem objective in a technical sense. Forty years on, their sturdy black-and-white photographs of crumbling monoliths summon romantic images of an industrial revolution forged in factories. Blast furnaces, water tanks, lime kilns, and grain silos comprise the “anonymous sculptures” that the Bechers would study their entire lives.
With the publication of Anonyme Skulpturen in 1970, the pair came to global prominence. Bernhard and Hildgard Becher occupied several professional spheres at once. In artistic circles, their work was understood as something like conceptual art. Today, their photographs can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and many other prestigious museums. For architects, however, their work had an even more profound significance.
“The question if this is a work of art or not is not very interesting for us,” Hilla Becher told Artforum in 1972. “Probably It is situated in between the established categories. Anyway, the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it.”
In the 1960s, the Bechers began documenting industrial structures that were disappearing across Germany. Their approach was “objective” in the sense that the photographers sought to remove artistic decision-making from the process. Each photo depicted its subject in the same standard, isolated, focused way—like mug shots for infrastructure. Collectively, these photos added up to cohesive typological studies, pictured broadly in Typologies of Industrial Buildings and Basic Forms (both 2004) or in drop-down detail in such presentations as Water Towers (1988), Grain Elevators (2006), and Coal Mines and Steel Mills (2010).
In the Bechers’ body of work, the parts were greater than the whole. With clinical precision, the photographers attempted to sort and delineate categories of often derelict structures, starting in Germany, expanding throughout Europe, and eventually even exploring the Rust Belt in the U.S. What they discovered was not Borg-like industrial symmetry, but rather the idiosyncrasies—the artistry, perhaps—behind each individual minehead, cooling tower, and coal-mine tipple.
The Bechers’ work has been enormously influential. Photographers who studied at the Dusseldorf Art Academy under the Bechers, including Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, bear the mark of the “New Topographics”—the movement in landscape photography that the Bechers helped to foster. Their methods have spread far beyond the Dusseldorf School. William Christenberry, for example, has taken the same objective approach to capture the Southern Gothic as told through its crumbling barns and five-and-dimes.
As post-war photographers, the Bechers’ work served as both an embrace and critique of the Machine Age. They did not turn away from modernism and the consequences for Europe of industrialization in Germany. Neither did they strive to cast Germany’s industrial history in any political light. Merely looking at the past without seeing some vision of the future was a new act for German photography—and in itself a political posture. This is what the Bechers meant by objectivity.
"We don’t agree with the depiction of buildings in the ‘20s and 1930s,” the Bechers once said in a statement. “Things were seen either from above or below which tended to monumentalize the object. This was exploited in terms of a socialistic view—a fresh view of the world, a new man, a new beginning."