Archive for February 7th, 2012

07
Feb
12

Exhibition: ‘Bernd and Hilla Becher: Mines and Mills – Industrial Landscapes’ at Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zurich

Exhibition dates: 26th November 2011 – 12th February 2012

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“The pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion.”

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William Jenkins, Curator of the ‘New Topographics’ exhibition, 1975

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“The Ruhr Valley, where Becher’s family had worked in the steel and mining industries, was their initial focus. They were fascinated by the similar shapes in which certain buildings were designed. In addition, they were intrigued by the fact that so many of these industrial buildings seemed to have been built with a great deal of attention toward design. Together, the Bechers went out with a large 8 x 10-inch view camera and photographed these buildings from a number of different angles, but always with a straightforward “objective” point of view. They shot only on overcast days, so as to avoid shadows, and early in the morning during the seasons of spring and fall. Objects included barns, water towers, oal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos, and warehouses. At each site the Bechers also created overall landscape views of the entire plant, which set the structures in their context and show how they relate to each other.”

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Wikipedia entry for Bernd and Hilla Becher

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“The German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, who began working together in 1959 and married in 1961, are best known for their “typologies” – grids of black-and-white photographs of variant examples of a single type of industrial structure. To create these works, the artists traveled to large mines and steel mills, and systematically photographed the major structures, such as the winding towers that haul coal and iron ore to the surface and the blast furnaces that transform the ore into metal. The rigorous frontality of the individual images gives them the simplicity of diagrams, while their density of detail offers encyclopedic richness. At each site the Bechers also created overall landscape views of the entire plant, which set the structures in their context and show how they relate to each other. The typologies emulate the clarity of an engineer’s drawing, while the landscapes evoke the experience of a particular place.”

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Peter Galassi, Chief Curator of Photography, MOMA

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Let’s not beat around the bush. Despite protestations to the contrary (appeals to the objectivity of the image, eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion; the rigorous frontality of the individual images giving them the simplicity of diagrams, while their density of detail offers encyclopedic richness) these are subjective images for all their objective desire. The paradox is the more a photographer strives for objectivity, the more ego drops away, the more the work becomes their own: subjective, beautiful, emotive.

Even though the Bechers’ demonstrate great photographic restraint with regard to documenting the object, the documentary gaze is always corrupted / mutated / distorted by personal interpretation: where to position the camera, what to include or exclude, how to interpret the context of place, how to crop or print the image, and how to display the image, in grids, sequences or singularly. In other words there are always multiple (con)texts to which artists conform or transgress. What makes great photographers, such as Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, August Sander and the Bechers, is the idiosyncratic “nature” of their vision: how Atget places his large view camera – at that particular height and angle to the subject – leaves an indelible feeling that only he could have made that image, to reveal the magic of that space in a photograph. It is their personal, unique thumbprint, recognisable in an instant. So it is with the Bechers.

These are intimate images, a personal reaction to space and place, to being. They make my heart ache for their stillness and ethereal beauty. Bravo!

Dr Marcus Bunyan

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Many thankx to the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zurich for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

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Bernd and Hilla Becher
Grube San Fernando, Herdorf, D
1961
Gelatin-silver print
50 x 60 cm
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

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Bernd and Hilla Becher

Zeche Germania, Dortmund, D
1971
Gelatin-silver print
50 x 60 cm
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

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“For more than forty years, the photographer couple Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (*1934) worked on creating an inventory of industrial architecture. Warehouses, shaft towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces as well as half-timbered houses are among the subjects they photographed throughout Germany, England, France, Central Europe, and the USA. Calling these buildings “anonymous sculptures,” they refer to the artistic quality of the constructions, which played no role for the buildings’ largely unknown builders and users. Their photographs attempt to draw attention to these hidden sculptural qualities and to document them historically as a building tradition in decline.

Bernd and Hilla Becher have always held particular interest for the industrial architecture in the Ruhr region. The exhibition Mines and Mills – Industrial Landscapes systematically examines this aspect of their work for the first time. Even today, names such as the Concordia and Hannibal collieries or Gutehoffnungshütte stand for the industrial history of the Ruhr region. Instead of concentrating on individual buildings, the exhibition approaches the mining facilities (where coal was produced for the smelting works) as a whole and in the context of their urban or natural surroundings. This typology, which the Bechers described as “industrial landscape,” compares the Ruhr region with similar complexes elsewhere in Europe and the USA.

As with their typological multiple and serial views of buildings, Bernd and Hilla Becher strive for a comparative perspective in their industrial landscapes. Demonstrating great photographic restraint in their approach and in the name of a “New Objectivity” dedicated solely to the object, they stand in a long tradition of proponents of the documentary gaze that includes Eugène Atget, Karl Blossfeldt, Walker Evans, Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander. Their influence on the history of photography extends from the establishment of the “Dusseldorf School” into the present.

“The main aim of our work is to show that the forms of our time are technical forms, although they did not develop from formal considerations. Just as medieval thought is manifested in the gothic cathedral, our era is revealed in technical buildings and apparatuses,” Bernd and Hilla Becher stated in a conversation from 2005.

The industrial landscapes can be read from historical and social perspectives, to an even greater extent than the familiar photographs of simple building typologies. Next to the monumental, industrial buildings one often sees residential constructions, gardens, and allotment gardens, which convey how intertwined the organization of life and work was at the time and how deeply rooted people were in this city-like structure. Photographed at waist-height, the broad, open views of the horizontally composed photographs have an aesthetic that is almost atypical of the Bechers. However, the images adhere systematically to the archival thinking of the artist couple.”

Press release from the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Zurich website

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Bernd and Hilla Becher
Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, D
1963
Gelatin-silver print
50 x 60 cm
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

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Bernd and Hilla Becher
Charleroi-Montignies, B
1971
Gelatin-silver print
50 x 60 cm
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

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Bernd and Hilla Becher
Duisburg-Huckingen, D
1970
Gelatin-silver print
50 x 60 cm
© Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel

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Fotomuseum Winterthur
Grüzenstrasse 44 + 45
CH-8400
Winterthur (Zürich)

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Wednesday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Closed on Mondays

Fotomuseum Winterthur website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes the Art Blart blog which reviews exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia and posts exhibitions from around the world. He has a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently studying a Master of Art Curatorship at The University of Melbourne.

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