Posts Tagged ‘typologies

05
Nov
22

Exhibition: ‘Bernd and Hilla Becher’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Exhibition dates: 15th July – 6th November 2022

Curators: Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator, Department of Photographs, assisted by Virginia McBride, Research Associate, Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

Bernd & Hiller Becher exhibition banner

 

Bernd & Hiller Becher exhibition banner

 

 

Ghosts in the machine

In a way that Plato would recognise with his perfect forms (abstract yet perfect, unchanging concepts or ideals that transcend time and space and live on a spiritual plane behind the representation of a physical reality), I feel as though Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) has existed outside of time – a model of directness that was always there – in a timeless way, before the actual concept emerged into consciousness in the 1920s German art tradition.

German photographers Bernd & Hiller Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) were devoted to the ideals of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and their work evolved from these older traditions of objective photography as practiced by artists such as August Sander (German, 1876-1964) and Karl Blossfeldt (German, 1865-1932) during the 1920s. The typologies that the Bechers collected – their beautiful, multiple, conceptual, objective, documentary fine art ‘record photographs’ – made them among the most important figures in postwar German photography.

Their teaching at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf in the mid 1970s lead to the formation of the Dusseldorf School of Photography which refers to a group of photographers who studied under the artist duo who also shared (and then modified) their aesthetic – a commitment to controlled objectivity and a documentary orientation. These important next generation artists included people such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth. The Bechers influence on contemporary documentary fine art photography continues today.

“The Bechers specialized in the photography of anonymous industrial sites and structures, methodically employing the same neutral perspective in each image, as in Water Towers. The nine nineteenth-century metal water towers are displayed in a grid as a single work, the black-and-white images revealing the differences between objects that had an identical function, and so bestowing an aesthetic value on them.”1

Here a definition of typology may be useful. ‘Typology’ is the study and interpretation of types and symbols, a classification according to a general type, especially in archaeology, psychology, or the social sciences. In this sense, the Becher’s photographs of industrial archetypes displayed in grids are excavations of historical types, representations of both pattern (type, grid) and randomness (interpretation, aesthetics). What does this mean? According to Katherine Hayles, pattern (in this case grids of photographs of the same archetype) cannot exist without its opposite, randomness, enacted through mutation of the code.

“Although mutation disrupts pattern, it also presupposes a morphological standard against which it can be measured and understood as mutation. We have seen that in electronic textuality, the possibility for mutation within the text are enhanced and heightened by long coding chains. We can now understand mutation in more fundamental terms. Mutation is critical because it names the bifurcation point at which the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve in a new direction…

Mutation is the catastrophe in the pattern/randomness dialectic… It marks a rupture of pattern so extreme that the expectation of continuous replication can no longer be sustained… The randomness to which mutation testifies is implicit in the very idea of pattern, for only against the background of nonpattern can pattern emerge. Randomness is the contrasting term that allows pattern to be understood as such.”2

The pattern of the Bechers photographs are the grids, the randomness evidenced as we move in to observe individual images within the grid, for every water tower is different and its own form… and then we pull back to compare one image with another, one mutation with another. As we move closer the individual image becomes whole in its own right, but contains within the pictorial frame evidence of the subjects mutation through decay, evidence of an industrial revolution and means of production that is now archaic and arcane. It is as though we are looking at a fractal in which similar patterns recur at progressively smaller scales, but which in fact describe partly random or chaotic phenomena, the seeds of their own mutation. And the possibility for mutation within the text is enhanced and heightened by long coding chains, such as large typologies of objects and large grids of images.

As much as the Bechers objective photographs seek a cool sameness, they undermine their own project by their photographs inherent subversiveness. It’s as though the beauty of their object of desire is being played off against a rage against the machine, a critique of what industrialisation is doing to the divine landscape of the earth.

Of course images are always seen in context which, together with their formal characteristics and conditions, limits the meanings available from them at any one moment. As Annette Kuhn observes, “Meanings do not reside in images, then: they are circulated between representation, spectator and social function.”3 We understand the Bechers images then, through a representation of reality which always and necessarily entails, “the use of the codes and conventions of the available cultural forms of presentation. Such forms restrict and shape what can be said by and / or about any aspect of reality in a given place in a given society at a given time, but if that seems like a limitation on saying, it is also what makes saying possible at all.”4 Richard Dyer continues,

“I accept that one apprehends reality only through representations of reality, through texts, discourse, images; there is no such thing as unmediated access to reality. But because one can see reality only through representation, it does not follow that one does not see reality at all. Partial – selective, incomplete, from a point of view – vision of something is not no vision of it whatsoever.”4

Despite the Bechers attempt to catalogue vast typologies, there is no order without disorder. Their vision, and our vision, is only ever selective, incomplete and from a point of view. Much as they desire an enchantment of the subject so that the object of desire falls under their spell in order to validate its presence, so there is no single determinate meaning to any presentation of their work, for people make sense of images in different ways, according to the cultural codes available to them. “What is re-presented in representation is not directly reality itself but other representations. The analysis of images always needs to see how any given instance is embedded in a network of other instances…”4

The ghosts in the machine of the Bechers networks, those random bits of code that lurk behind a not so perfect representation, group together to form unexpected protocols seen from different points of view. “Unanticipated, these free radicals engender questions of free will, creativity, and even the nature of what we might call the soul.” (Asimov)

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Footnotes

  1. Anonymous. “A Movement in a Moment: The Düsseldorf School,” on the Phaidon website [Online] Cited 01/11/2022
  2. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, p. 33.
  3. Annette Kuhn. The Power of the Image: Essays on Representation and Sexuality. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1985, p. 6.
  4. Richard Dyer. The Matter of Images: Essays on Representations. London: Routledge, 1993, pp. 2-3.

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Many thankx to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

“I think it’s best to imagine that they cast a doubting eye on earlier aspirations to scientific and technical order. After all, the Bechers hit their stride as artists in the 1960s and early ’70s, at just the moment when any aspiring intellectual was reading Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which pointed to how the sociology of science (who holds power in labs and who doesn’t) shapes what science tells us. The French philosopher Roland Barthes had killed off the all-powerful author and let the rest of us be the true makers of meaning, even if that left it unstable. European societies were in turmoil as they faced the terrors of the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof gang, so brilliantly captured in the streaks and smears of Gerhard Richter, that other German giant of postwar art. The Bechers were working in that world of unsettled and unsettling ideas. By parroting the grammar of technical imagery, without actually achieving any technical goals, their photos seem to loosen technology’s moorings. By collecting water towers the way someone else might collect cookie jars, they cut industry down to size… To get the full meaning and impact of the Bechers’ Machine Age black-and-whites, they should really be viewed through the windows of their Information Age orange van.”

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Blake Gopnik. “Photography’s Delightful Obsessives,” on The New York Times website July 28, 2022 [Online] Cited 20/10/2022

 

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'Bernd & Hilla Becher' at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Installation view of the exhibition Bernd & Hilla Becher at The Metropolitan Museum of Art showing at centre, Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium 1983, below
Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen/The Met

00 Basic Forms
01 Framework Houses
02 Early Work
03 Industrial Landscapes
04 Zeche Concordia
05 Art and Evolution
06 Typologies

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium
1983
Gelatin silver print
Image: 23 7/8 × 19 13/16 in. (60.6 × 50.4cm)
Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1992

 

 

Both as artists and teachers, Bernhard and Hilla Becher are among the most important figures in postwar German photography. For the last thirty years, the artists have examined the dilapidated industrial architecture of Europe and North America, from water towers and blast furnaces to the surrounding workers’ houses. Photographing against a blank sky and without any pictorial tricks or effects, the artists treat these forgotten structures as the exotic specimens of a long-dead species.

 

 

The renowned German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) changed the course of late twentieth-century photography. Working as a rare artist couple, they focused on a single subject: the disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America that fuelled the modern era. Their seemingly objective style recalled nineteenth- and early twentieth-century precedents but also resonated with the serial approach of contemporary Minimalism and Conceptual art. Equally significant, it challenged the perceived gap between documentary and fine-art photography.

Using a large-format view camera, the Bechers methodically recorded blast furnaces, winding towers, grain silos, cooling towers, and gas tanks with precision, elegance, and passion. Their rigorous, standardised practice allowed for comparative analyses of structures that they exhibited in grids of between four and thirty photographs. They described these formal arrangements as “typologies” and the buildings themselves as “anonymous sculpture.”

This posthumous retrospective celebrates the Bechers’ remarkable achievement and is the first ever organised with full access to the artists’ personal collection of working materials and their comprehensive archive.

Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) 'Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany' 1955-1956

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany
1955-1956
Graphite and watercolour on paper
16 5/16 × 16 5/16 in. (41.5 × 41.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

The earliest surviving independent works by Bernd Becher are several rare drawings and photocollages of the Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, made before the formation of his artistic partnership with Hilla Wobeser in 1959. These include the works presented on this wall and directly opposite. They reveal the artist’s lifelong interest in the accurate description of mining and manufacturing structures familiar to him from his childhood. Here, Bernd takes special care to focus on the mine’s wooden framework features and its idiosyncratic winding tower, which rises above the buildings like an enormous windblown flag.

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) 'Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany' 1957

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Eisernhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany
1957
Collage of five gelatin silver prints
Sheet: 15 3/4 × 11 3/4 in. (40 × 29.9cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) '[Assemblage of Pipes]' 1964 or later

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
[Assemblage of Pipes]
1964 or later
Gelatin silver prints with graphite
Sheet: 14 3/8 × 13 1/16 in. (36.5 × 33.2cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

This exceptional assemblage includes three razor-cut photographs of blast-furnace pipes braided together into a handsome knot. Part Giorgio de Chirico (one of the artist’s favourite painters), part pretzel, the metaphysical work shows Bernd Becher’s playful sense of humour and appreciation for the complexity and visual wonderment of industrial forms.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) '[Mountain Elm Leaf]' 1965

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
[Mountain Elm Leaf]
1965
Gelatin silver print
9 5/16 × 6 15/16 in. (23.7 × 17.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

In these studies of tree leaves, Hilla Becher is operating in a long tradition of natural realism that connects her work to that of many earlier German artists, including the photographs of Karl Blossfeldt and the printed botanical and zoological studies of Ernst Haeckel (see display case). What was important to Blossfeldt, Haeckel, and the Bechers was not simple exactitude but a particular type of graphic description and presentation that could reveal the unique, often quirky, and at times humorous structure of any form.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) '[Spruce Branch]' 1965

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
[Spruce Branch]
1965
Gelatin silver print
9 7/16 × 7 1/16 in. (24 × 17.9cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934–2015) '[Shell, for the German Industrial Exhibition, Khartoum, Sudan]' 1961

 

Hilla Becher (German, 1934–2015)
[Shell, for the German Industrial Exhibition, Khartoum, Sudan]
1961
Gelatin silver print
15 3/8 × 11 7/8 in. (39 × 30.1cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.

 

 

Even after the establishment of the Bechers’ professional partnership in 1959, Hilla continued to accept commission work. She produced this study of the inner architecture of a seashell as a graphic for a display of industrial design at a German trade fair in Khartoum. This vintage photograph was copied and used by the pavilion designer as oversize enlargements. Hilla also documented the interior and exterior of the innovative prefabricated shed pavilion with its lively metal banding.

 

Ernst Haeckel (German, 1834-1919) "Echinidea. – Igelsterne" 'Kunstformen der Natur' (Leipzig and Vienna: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, 1904)

 

Ernst Haeckel (German, 1834-1919)
“Echinidea. – Igelsterne”
Kunstformen der Natur (Leipzig and Vienna: Verlag des Bibliographischen Instituts, 1904)
1904
Lithograph
Sheet: 13 5/8 × 10 1/4 in. (34.6 × 26cm)
Joyce Frank Menschel Library, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

 

For both research purposes and aesthetic pleasure, Hilla Becher assembled a collection of illustrated books dedicated to scientific classification. None on the theme of biological order was more important to the artists’ development than Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 Kunstformen der Natur. The plate from a disbound volume presented here shows a typological comparison of sea urchins and sand dollars.

 

 

From July 15 to November 6, 2022, the renowned American museum is showing a retrospective of the important artist couple in cooperation with Studio Bernd & Hilla Becher, Dusseldorf, and Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne.

Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007, 1934-2015) are among the most important artists of the second half of the 20th century. Since the 1960s, their works have provided decisive impetus for photography, art and also generally for dealing with our culture, economy, science and society. For more than 50 years, the artist couple has devoted themselves to the subject of the industrial landscape, the functional buildings and constructions of the mining industry in Western Europe and North America. They created countless black-and-white photographs, which they took with their large-format cameras, of winding towers, blast furnaces, water and cooling towers, coal bunkers, gas tanks, half-timbered houses, entire industrial plants and landscapes. The photographs show precise, at the same time analytical views and individual forms, which Bernd and Hilla Becher subjected to a comparative analysis. So-called typologies, unfolding photographic sets or also large-format typologically conceived individual photographs were the results of their collaboration, which they exhibited internationally and published in monographs. Works that received a special appreciation under the term “Anonymous Sculptures” and attained top-class awards.

The method used by the Bechers can be regarded as style-defining. It transformed the descriptive, objective view of photography of the 19th and early 20th century, which the artist couple highly valued, into a new era, integrating it into clearly sequenced series of images and thus at the same time pointing to perspectives of minimal and conceptual art, which further underscores the innovative power of their work.

Between 1976 and 1996 Bernd Becher taught at the Art Academy in Dusseldorf. Numerous well-known photographers and artists emerged from his photography class. As of the 1960s Bernd and Hilla Becher had their studio in Dusseldorf. Today the studio is being continued as the Bernd & Hilla Becher Studio by their son, estate administrator and artist Max Becher. From 1995 until their death, the artist couple worked together with Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, from which the Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive emerged. The majority of the exhibition is furnished from this collection, including numerous previously little-shown and unknown materials by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Overall, the retrospective, which will be on view in a second venue at the SFMoMA between December 17, 2022 and April 2, 2023, introduces all of the artist couple’s areas of work.

The exhibition was curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator, Department of Photographs, assisted by Virginia McBride, Research Associate, Department of Photographs, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Text from the Metropolitan Museum of Art website

 

Unknown photographer. 'Bernd and Max Becher, Kintzel Coal Company, Big Lick Mountains, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania' 1978

 

Unknown photographer
Bernd and Max Becher, Kintzel Coal Company, Big Lick Mountains, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania
1978
Chromogenic print
4 3/8 × 3 7/16 in. (11.1 × 8.8cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Unknown photographer. 'Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ensdorf Mine, Saarland, Germany' 1979

 

Unknown photographer
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Ensdorf Mine, Saarland, Germany
1979
Gelatin silver print
4 3/4 × 5 9/16 in. (12 × 14.1cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Their camera’s lens, facing Hilla, has been raised higher than the film plane that’s facing Bernd, a trick that lets them capture the tops of tall structures.

 

Unknown photographer. 'Hilla Becher, Youngstown, Ohio, United States' 1981

 

Unknown photographer
Hilla Becher, Youngstown, Ohio, United States
1981
Instant diffusion transfer print (Polaroid)
2 7/8 × 3 3/4 in. (7.3 × 9.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bouwen voor de Industrie in de 19e en 20e eeuw, een fotografische dokumentatie door Bernd en Hilla Becher, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands 1968

 

Bouwen voor de Industrie in de 19e en 20e eeuw, een fotografische dokumentatie door Bernd en Hilla Becher, Stedelijk van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands
1968
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 34 5/8 × 24 3/16 in. (88 × 61.5cm)
Frame: 36 15/16 × 26 7/16 in. (93.8 × 67.2cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher were notoriously exacting about how their photographs were constructed in the camera, printed in the darkroom, and sequenced and reproduced in their many publications. Interestingly, they were rather generous with how and where their photographs were used in other printed materials, such as promotional leaflets, invitations, and exhibition posters. The posters gathered in this exhibition display a variety of typographic treatments and arrangements.

 

Bernd och Hilla Becher, Form genom Funktion, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden 1970

 

Bernd och Hilla Becher, Form genom Funktion, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, Sweden
1970
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 39 5/16 × 27 1/2 in. (99.8 × 69.8cm)
Frame: 41 9/16 × 29 3/4 in. (105.6 × 75.6cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Typologien industrieller Bauten, Museum für Fotografie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany 2005

 

Bernd und Hilla Becher, Typologien industrieller Bauten, Museum für Fotografie im Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin, Germany
2005
Photomechanical reproduction
Sheet: 46 7/8 × 33 1/16 in. (119 × 84cm)
Frame: 49 1/16 × 35 5/16 in. (124.6 × 89.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Bernd & Hilla Becher, First Posthumous Retrospective of the Highly Influential Photographers to Open at The Met July 15

Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931-2007; 1934-2015) are widely considered the most influential German photographers of the postwar period. Working as a rare artist couple, they developed a rigorous practice focused on a single subject: the disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America that fueled the modern era. Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on July 15, 2022, Bernd & Hilla Becher features some 200 works of art and is the artists’ first posthumous retrospective of their 50-year career. It is organised with full access to the Becher’s comprehensive archive and personal collection of working materials and is the first American retrospective since 1974 (when their mature style was still evolving).

The exhibition is made possible by Joyce Frank Menschel, the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation, the Edward John & Patricia Rosenwald Foundation, and Linda Macklowe. It is organised by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in association with Studio Bernd & Hilla Becher and Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher changed the course of late 20th-century photography, and their groundbreaking work continues to influence artists to this day,” said Max Hollein, Marina Kellen French Director of The Met. “It is a privilege to present this first posthumous retrospective and to celebrate their legacy and remarkable artistic achievement.”

 

Exhibition Overview

The Bechers seemingly objective aesthetic looked back to 19th- and early 20th-century precedents but also resonated with the serial, premeditated progressions of contemporary Minimalism and Conceptual art. Equally significant, their aesthetic challenged the perceived gap between documentary and fine-art photography. The artists used a large-format view camera – similar to those used by 19th-century photographers such as the Bisson Frères in France and Carleton Watkins in the American West – and spurned the handheld, 35 mm roll-film cameras of the type preferred by journalists and pre- and postwar artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. They worked exclusively with black-and-white photographic materials, intentionally avoiding the medium’s inevitable move to colour that took place during the 1960s and 1970s, and methodically recorded blast furnaces, winding towers, grain silos, cooling towers, and gas tanks with precision, elegance, and passion. Their standardised approach allowed for comparative analyses of structures that they exhibited in grids of between 4 and 30 photographs. They described these formal arrangements as “typologies” and the buildings themselves as “anonymous sculpture.”

The Bechers had a direct and profound influence on several generations of students at the renowned art academy Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where Bernd was appointed the first professor of photography in 1976. Among the members of the so-called Becher School or Düsseldorf School of Photography are some of the most recognised German artists of the past 40 years, such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Ruff.

Featured in the exhibition alongside the individual and grids of photographs for which the Bechers are best known are extraordinary works in photography and other media executed by them before and after the formation of their creative partnership in 1959. These rarely seen lithographs, collages, photographs, ink and pencil sketches, Polaroids, and personal snapshots offer a deep understanding of the artists’ working methods and intellectual processes.

Following its debut at The Met, the exhibition will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), where it will be on view from December 17, 2022 through April 2, 2023. Bernd & Hilla Becher is curated by Jeff L. Rosenheim, Joyce Frank Menschel Curator in Charge of the Department of Photographs, with assistance from Virginia McBride, Research Assistant in the Department of Photographs, both at The Met. The Met developed the exhibition with Max Becher, the artists’ son, and with Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, director of the Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, where the artists’ vast photographic print archive is preserved.

The exhibition is accompanied by a scholarly publication, the first posthumous monograph published on the Bechers. It features essays by Gabriele Conrath-Scholl; Dr. Virginia Heckert, curator of photographs at the J. Paul Getty Museum and an expert on the Bechers; and Lucy Sante, arts critic, essayist, artist, and visiting professor of writing and photography at Bard College. The publication also includes an extensive interview with Max Becher that, together with the essays, introduces and surveys the Bechers’ photographs and the significance of their achievement over a remarkably productive half-century career. The catalogues is made possible by the Mary C. and James W. Fosburgh Publications Fund.

Press release from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Blast Furnaces (United States, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium)' 1968-1993

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Blast Furnaces (United States, Germany, Luxembourg, France, and Belgium)
1968-1993
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

Such series may have been less about the glories of heavy industry than its approaching demise in the West.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Blast Furnace, Youngstown, Ohio, United States' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Blast Furnace, Youngstown, Ohio, United States
1983
Gelatin silver print
23 1/8 × 18 1/4 in. (58.8 × 46.4cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

The buildings Bernd and Hilla Becher chose to photograph were meant to be altered or demolished when superseded technologically. Given the planned obsolescence of their subjects, the artists’ timing played an important role in the success of their practice. In one of their last books, Industrial Landscapes (2002), they commented: “Once we were in northern France, where we found a wonderful headgear [the top of a blast furnace] – a veritable Eiffel Tower. When we arrived the weather was hazy and not ideal for our work so we decided to postpone taking the photos for a day. When we arrived the next day, it had already been torn down, the dust was in the air.”

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Gravel Plants' 1988-2001

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gravel Plants
1988-2001
Gelatin silver prints

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Gravel Plant, Günzburg, Germany' 1989

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gravel Plant, Günzburg, Germany
1989
Gelatin silver print
24 3/16 × 19 3/16 in. (61.4 × 48.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Bernd and Hilla Becher completed a thorough documentation of the many gravel plants in and near Günzburg, a small city on the Danube River in Bavaria. This oddly shaped yet functional building was used as a stone breaker to produce gravel, the still-lucrative industrial material required for making roads and high-quality concrete. The asymmetrical facade delights the eye, recalling the Bechers’ frequently stated agenda: “We were fascinated above all by the shape of technical architecture, and hardly by its history.”

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Cooling Tower, Zeche Mont Cenis, Herne, Ruhr Region, Germany' 1965

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Tower, Zeche Mont Cenis, Herne, Ruhr Region, Germany
1965
Gelatin silver print
23 5/8 x 18 1/4 in. (60.5 x 46.4cm)
Collection of James Kieth Brown and Eric Diefenbach

 

 

Influenced by the formal rigour and conceptual methods of pre-World War II artists, such as August Sander and Walker Evans, Bernd and Hilla Becher were considered equals and fellow travellers by Minimalist sculptors, such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. They treated their subject matter – the disappearing industrial architecture of the West – as “anonymous sculpture.” Here, a fabulous tower used to cool water at the Mont Cenis colliery rises from the ground like a modernist top hat made for a wooden giant. In 1978, just thirteen years after the Bechers visited the busy complex, it closed permanently, ending more than one hundred years of coal extraction on the site.

The Bechers photographed against a blank sky and without any pictorial tricks or effects, using an old-fashioned tripod-mounted view camera of the kind used by Eugène Atget and Walker Evans. They treated their subjects as “anonymous sculpture” (the name of their first monograph) that could only be fully rendered through either multiple views from different perspectives or more often, through the typological accumulation and serial presentation of multiple specimens. Although they were artists not scientists, the Bechers used an almost Linnean system of classification – another important 19th century precedent which they made resolutely modern.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Cooling Tower, Caerphilly, South Wales, Great Britain' 1966

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Tower, Caerphilly, South Wales, Great Britain
1966
Gelatin silver print
Image: 14 5/8 × 11 3/4 in. (37.1 × 29.9cm)
Gift of the LeWitt Family, in memory of Bernd and Hilla Becher, 2018

 

 

As both artists and professors at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, the husband-and-wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher have influenced an entire generation of German photographers with their typological approach to the medium, in which a single archetypal subject is described through an accumulation of diverse examples. For more than three decades, they have systematically examined the dilapidated industrial architecture of Europe and North America, from water towers and blast furnaces to the surrounding workers’ houses, all recorded against a blank sky and without expressive effects. As it developed in the 1960s, the Bechers’ project chimed with Conceptual Art in its emphasis on impersonal series as well as with older traditions of objective photography as practiced by such artists such as August Sander and Karl Blossfeldt.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Cooling Towers (Wood)' 1976

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015) 'Cooling Towers (Wood)' 1976 (detail)

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood) (detail)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Cooling Towers (Wood) (detail)
1976
Gelatin silver prints
16 × 12 in. (40.6 × 30.5cm), each
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

 

 

The Bechers’ purpose has always been to make the clearest possible photographs of industrial structures. They are not interested in making euphemistic, socio-romantic pictures glorifying industry, nor doom-laden spectacles showing its costs and dangers. Equally, they have nothing in common with photographers who seek to make pleasing modernist abstractions, treating the structures as decorative shapes divorced from their function.

The Bechers’ goal is to create photographs that are concentrated on the structures themselves and not qualified by subjective interpretations. To them, these structures are the ‘architecture of engineers’ and their pictures should be seen as the photography of engineers – that is, record pictures. …

[Record photographers are the unsung heroes of the history of photography. They are the anonymous commercial photographers who were commissioned to record both great and everyday industrial and civic projects, from the construction of canals to the blooming of floral clocks.]

The Bechers are fascinated by the idiosyncratic appearance of each structure. The mass-produced, design-conscious assemblies devised by architects with an eye on appearance do not appeal as much as those with a mindfulness of function. What interests the Bechers are constructions made by engineers whose plans are pragmatic, where function dictates the form, rather than, as is increasingly the case, the other way round. In the words of Bernd: ‘There is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either. They are engineering constructions with their own aesthetic.’

Their fascination is rooted in an understanding of the structures. The Bechers are the first to acknowledge the primarily functional role of the constructions, that their existence is justified solely by their industrial performance, and that once this has been superseded the structures will be modified or demolished. They liken the way a blast furnace develops over time, as furnaces and pipework are added, to the organic but apparently chaotic growth of a medieval city. This purpose-led rationale is what attracts them. They refer to some of the structures as ‘nomadic architecture’. Once they photographed a blast furnace that was being dismantled by Chinese workers in Luxembourg, who then had to reassemble it in China.

By placing photographs of similar subjects alongside each other, the individual differences emerge, making the fine details in each picture more noticeable, more distinct. Drawing on this, they began exhibiting the pictures as typologies; by the early 1960s they showed their work only in typological groups. Typically, a piece of work would comprise four small prints of, for example, water towers, adjacent to a larger print of one of the four. They would not supply prints of individual pictures; the typology was the work. Later, their typologies contained prints of equal size, measuring 30 cm by 40 cm. It could be three rows of five prints, a grid of nine or, in one case, 28 blast furnaces in three rows; a symphony of industrial structures.

The Bechers’ pictures do not have to be viewed in typologies in order to make sense, as they have validity as individual images. The typology has been developed for two reasons. First, by amassing such a detailed survey of industrial structures they are revealing sets and subsets, much like 19th-century zoologists did. With water towers, for example, there are round steel ones with conical tops, like hats, and semi-circular ones. Others are circular with sloping roofs, or without roofs, or on steel derricks, or brick towers, and so on. The more fine the differences, the better they are illustrated by the typology.

Second, the typology used by the Bechers emphasises the rewards of close scrutiny, and it is this that makes each and every one of their pictures fascinating. By presenting 15 water towers in a grid, the first effect is an imposing mass of industrial structures. You must stand back in order to take them all in as a group, but to look closer at an individual picture it is necessary to draw nearer.

Up close, only one tower is visible at a time. Isolated in pristine, black-and-white definition, this everyday object is revealed as an ‘anonymous sculpture’, an unostentatious but fabulous creation by mankind. To compare it with the others is to stand back again, and from here the impulse is to step up and examine another. Just as the beauty of the individual structure (for that is what they are) is there to see, so together as a typology they are a thrilling spectacle. …

There is a wisdom and honour in the Bechers’ work which frees them from imposing a conditional reading upon the viewer. The wisdom is the methodology they recognise in the ‘neutral’ depiction of record photography. The honour stems from a principle about not imposing their ideas on other people.

Hilla and Bernd both grew up under Adolf Hitler. They saw how he corrupted German art to promote his propaganda. This was particularly pertinent to photography, and it remained tainted after the war; witness the grim examples of Leni Riefensthal’s glorifying images of Nazis and the pseudo-scientific eugenic portrait studies that were published to defend anti-semitism and supremacism. This is why the legacy of August Sander (1876-1964), whose neutral approach to portraiture was damned by the Nazis, is so precious in Germany. It is also why the Bechers’ continuing example is extremely important. …

Because photography has, for so long, been used for commercial reasons, notably in advertising, people are accustomed to absorbing manipulative images, and have come to expect – or even rely on – a conditional presentation. Take away this interpretative control and the viewer is left free, which is unnerving if one is not used to it. This is why some regard the Bechers’ photographs as ‘cold’. There is no editorial, no soundtrack, no suggestions nor judgments. You are left to your own devices.

Of course, their motivations are not invisible, nor their presence unfelt. What does it mean when something ‘rings true’? How is it that one can sense the sincerity in another’s words? Perhaps this lies in the realm of intuition, not explanation. To analyse art is not necessarily to experience it. Sometimes, by focusing on a deliberation of it, one limits the engagement to a cerebral encounter. In the West particularly, we use explanations to try to control the unknown, to make uncertainties certain. Maybe there is a wisdom we have that is not learnt but is within us. Far better to look rather than puzzle, and to open one’s senses to what is there.

Here lies the wonder in the Bechers’ photographs. They are like rounding a hill and seeing a view spread out before you. In Cwmcynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, 1966, a minehead stands above lines of terraced houses in the village. The giant pair of wheels on top of the single-tier steel headframe is an engineer’s structure. A device to do a job, not to win design awards. You could not dream up such structures, neither could you invent, say, your grandparents’ kitchen. These things arise from the conditions in which they are used.

They are the lines on the face of the world. The photographs are portraits of our history. And when the structures have been demolished and grassed over, as though they were never there, the pictures remain.

Michael Collins, “The long look,” Tate Research Publication, 2002 originally published in Tate Magazine issue 1 on the Tate website [Online] Cited 01/11/2022

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Towers (Belgium and France)' 1967-1988

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Towers (Belgium and France)
1967-1988
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Tower, Cwm Cynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, Great Britain' 1966

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Tower, Cwm Cynon Colliery, Mountain Ash, South Wales, Great Britain
1966
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 9/16 × 11 13/16 in. (39.6 × 30cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Winding Tower, Zeche Neu-Iserlohn, Bochum, Germany' 1963

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Winding Tower, Zeche Neu-Iserlohn, Bochum, Germany
1963
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 9/16 × 11 1/4 in. (39.5 × 28.5cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (Germany, France, Belgium, United States, and Great Britain)' 1963-1980

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (Germany, France, Belgium, United States, and Great Britain)
1963-1980
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

Is there some quiet comedy in revealing all the ways industry has managed the single job of storing water?

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (New York, United States)' 1978–1979

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (New York, United States)
1978-1979
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Water Towers (New York, United States)' 1978–1979 (detail)

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Water Towers (New York, United States)(detail)
1978-1979
Gelatin silver prints
15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5cm), each
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

One wall is gridded up with photos of industrial cooling towers, portrayed in wildly detailed black-and-white.

Another gives us 30 different views of blast furnaces, at plants across Western Europe and the United States. You can just about make out each bolt in their twisting pipework.

An entire gallery surveys the vast Concordia coal plant in Oberhausen, Germany: Teeming photos present its gas-storage tanks, its “lean gas generator,” its “quenching tower,” its “coke pushers.”

These and something like another 450 images fill “Bernd & Hilla Becher,” a fascinating, frankly gorgeous show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s curator of photography, Jeff Rosenheim, has organized a thorough retrospective for the Bechers, a German couple who made some of the most influential art photos of the past half-century. Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla (1934-2015) mentored generations of students at Düsseldorf’s great Kunstakademie, whose alumni include major photographic artists such as Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer.

But for all the heft of the heavy industry on view in the Met show – it’s easy to imagine the stink and smoke and racket that pressed in on the Bechers as they worked – you come away with an overall impression of lightness, of delightful order, even sometimes of gentle comedy.

Wall after wall of gridded grays soothe the eye and calm the soul, like the orderly, light-filled abstractions of Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt. The very fact of gathering 16 different water towers, from both sides of the Atlantic, onto a single museum wall helps to domesticate them, removing their industrial angst and original functions and turning them into something like curios, or collectibles. A catalog essay refers to the Bechers’ “rigorous documentation of thousands of industrial structures,” which is right – but it’s the rigour of a trainspotter, not an engineer. Despite their concrete grandeur, the assorted water towers come off as faintly ridiculous: Whether you’re collecting cookie jars or vintage wines – or shots of water towers – it’s as much about our human instinct to amass and organise as it is about the actual things you collect.

Consider the 32 Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) that launched Andy Warhol’s pop career, which are a vital precedent for the Bechers’ ordered seriality. You can read the Soup Cans as a critical portrayal of American consumerism, but a catalog of canned soups also reads as a quiet joke, at least when it’s presented for the sake of art, not shopping. Ditto, I think, for the Bechers’ famous “typologies” of industrial buildings, presented without anything like an industrial goal.

Indeed, the one thing you don’t come away with from the Becher show is real knowledge of mechanical engineering, or coal processing, or steel making. In long-ago student days, I cut out and framed a wallful of images from the Bechers’ glorious book of blast-furnace photos. (Their art has always existed as much in their books as in exhibitions.) After living with my furnaces for a decade or so, I can’t say I could have passed a quiz from Smelting 101.

Early coverage referred to the Bechers as “photographer-archaeologists” and the Met’s catalog talks about how they revealed the “functional characteristics of industrial structures.” There are certainly parallels between the preternatural clarity and unmediated “objectivity” of their images and earlier, purely technical and scientific photos meant to teach about the constructions and processes of industry. The Bechers admired such pictures. But however systematic their own project might seem, its goal was art, which means it was always bound to let function and meaning float free.

I think it’s best to imagine that they cast a doubting eye on earlier aspirations to scientific and technical order. After all, the Bechers hit their stride as artists in the 1960s and early ’70s, at just the moment when any aspiring intellectual was reading Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” which pointed to how the sociology of science (who holds power in labs and who doesn’t) shapes what science tells us. French philosopher Roland Barthes had killed off the all-powerful author and let the rest of us be the true makers of meaning, even if that left it unstable. European societies were in turmoil as they faced the terrors of the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof gang, so brilliantly captured in the streaks and smears of Gerhard Richter, that other German giant of postwar art. The Bechers were working in that world of unsettled and unsettling ideas. By parroting the grammar of technical imagery, without actually achieving any technical goals, their photos seem to loosen technology’s moorings. By collecting water towers the way someone else might collect cookie jars, they cut industry down to size.

The Bechers weren’t the only artists working that seam. Their era’s conceptualists also played games with science and industry. When John Baldessari had himself photographed throwing three balls into the air so they’d form a straight line, he was simulating experimentation, not aiming for any real experimental result: The repeated throwing and its failure was the point, not the straight line that could never get formed, anyway. When the Bechers’ friend Robert Smithson poured oceans of glue down a hillside or bulldozed dirt onto a shed until its roof cracked, he was mimicking the moves of heroic construction, not aiming to build anything.

What made the Bechers different from their peers is that they did their mimicking from the inside: They used the language of advanced photographic technology to inhabit the technophilic world they portrayed. Their photos are almost as constructed as any “lean gas generator” they might depict. The just-the-facts-ma’am objectivity of their images is only achieved through serious photographic artifice.

Take the Bechers’ four-square photos of four-square workers’ houses. Several houses are photographed from so close that, standing right in front of them, you’d never take in their entire facades at one glance, as the Bechers do in their images. It takes a wide-angle lens to allow that trick, and only if it’s installed on the kind of technical view camera whose bellows lets lens and film slide in opposite directions. That’s how the Bechers manage to line up our eyes with the top step on a stoop (we see it edge-on) while also catching the home’s gables, high above.

The preternatural level of detail on view and its glorious range of grays and blacks require negatives the size of a man’s hand, a tripod as big as a sapling, lens filters and an advanced darkroom technique. And the couple were relying on such labour-intensive technology at just the moment when most of their photographic peers, and millions of average people, had moved on to cameras and film that let them shoot on the fly, in lab-processed colour. With the Bechers, the “decisive moment” of 35 mm photography gets replaced by a gray-on-gray stasis that feels as though it could last forever – as though it’s as immovable as the steel girders it depicts.

But, in fact, those steel girders were more time-bound than the Bechers’ photos let on. “Just as Medieval thinking manifested itself in Gothic cathedrals, our era reveals itself in technological equipment and buildings,” the Bechers once declared, yet the era they revealed wasn’t really the one they were working in. In many cases, their factories and plants and mines were about to close when the Bechers shot them – a few had already been abandoned – as Western economies made the switch to services and design and computing. The outdatedness of the Bechers’ technique matches up with their subjects. Both represent a last-gasp moment in the “industrial” revolution, which is why there’s something almost poignant about this show.

One of its most revealing moments involves a film, not a photo, and it’s not even by the power couple. The Bechers’ young son, Max, who has since become a noted artist in his own right, once captured his parents in moving colour as they set out to document silos in the American Midwest. Max filmed Bernd and Hilla unloading their heavy-duty equipment, still much as it was in Victorian times, from a classic Volkswagen camper of the 1960s. It was an absurdly underpowered machine, but who could resist its colourful paint job or its mod lines and stylings?

To get the full meaning and impact of the Bechers’ Machine Age black-and-whites, they should really be viewed through the windows of their Information Age orange van.

Blake Gopnik. “Photography’s Delightful Obsessives,” on The New York Times website July 28, 2022 [Online] Cited 30/07/2022

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Lime Kiln, Brielle, Netherlands' 1968

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Lime Kiln, Brielle, Netherlands
1968
Gelatin silver print
24 in. × 19 1/2 in. (61 × 49.5cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

Lime, an important building material since ancient times, is used in the production of mortar and cement. Here, the Bechers focused their attention on six towering brick chimneys that look as much like sprouting asparagus as utilitarian structures. The artists chose a similar view of lime kilns for the cover image of Anonyme Skulpturen (1970), their ambitious first publication. The book presents comparative sequences of different industrial forms, from kilns and gasometers to cooling towers, blast furnaces, and winding towers.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Gas Tank, Wesseling / Cologne, Germany' 1983

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gas Tank, Wesseling / Cologne, Germany
1983
24 in. × 19 13/16 in. (60.9 × 50.3cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Framework House, Schloßblick 17, Kaan-Marienborn, Siegen, Germany' 1962

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Framework House, Schloßblick 17, Kaan-Marienborn, Siegen, Germany
1962
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 7/8 × 11 5/8 in. (40.3 × 29.6cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

 

Both as artists and teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher are the most important figures in European photography since 1950. Influenced by the formal rigour and typological method of prewar artists such as August Sander and Walker Evans, they were considered equals and fellow travellers by Minimalist sculptors such as Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt and paved the way for the medium’s integration into the broader arena of contemporary art. As professors at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, their influence was paramount on the celebrated generation of photographers known as the “Düsseldorf School” such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Candida Höfer.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany' 1969

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany
1969
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 13/16 × 11 11/16 in. (40.2 × 29.7cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany' 1969

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
High Tension Pylon near Düsseldorf, Germany
1969
Gelatin silver print
Image: 15 3/4 x 11 1/2 in. (40 x 29.2cm)
Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, Denise and Andrew Saul Fund, Louis V. Bell, Harris Brisbane Dick, Fletcher, and Rogers Funds and Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Jade Lau Gift, 2018

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Comparative Juxtaposition, Nine Objects, Each with a Different Function' 1961-1972

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Comparative Juxtaposition, Nine Objects, Each with a Different Function
1961-1972
Gelatin silver prints
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

 

 

These photographs show that the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher were sometimes more interested in aesthetic form than in what industry actually does.

Bernd and Hilla Becher found artistic inspiration in the under appreciated beauty of the built environment, specifically, commonplace industrial and residential architecture. The Bechers’ use of typological ordering, as seen here in a grid of fifteen framework-house studies, can be traced to Hilla’s interest in the concepts of taxonomy and morphology, which are systems of biological classification based on shape and function. They called their assemblages “typologies” and used this effective graphic structure to compare similar and different forms, as would a researcher studying a collection of fossils or butterflies.

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Terre Rouge, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg' 1979

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Terre Rouge, Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg
1979
Gelatin silver print
17 5/8 × 23 1/2 in. (44.8 × 59.7cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Charleroi-Montignies, Belgium' 1971

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Charleroi-Montignies, Belgium
1971
Gelatin silver print
19 in. × 23 1/4 in. (48.2 × 59cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007) 'Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Ruhr Region, Germany' 1999

 

Bernd and Hilla Becher (German, active 1959-2007)
Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007)
Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Ruhr Region, Germany
1999
19 3/8 × 23 7/8 in. (49.2 × 60.6cm)
Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne

 

 

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13
Aug
17

Exhibition: ‘Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class’ at the Städel Museum, Frankfurt

Exhibition dates: 27th April to 13th August 2017

Curator: Dr Martin Engler, Head of the Collection of Contemporary Art, Städel Museum
Co-curator: Dr Jana Baumann, Städel Museum

Artists: Volker Döhne, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth and Petra Wunderlich

 

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, Ruhrgebiet' 1963

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen, Ruhrgebiet
1963
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
75.3 x 91.4cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

 

“What the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher sparked off – and their students developed further – is a new conception of the artwork according to which the boundaries between sculpture, painting and photography dissolve in terms of media and aesthetics alike. In other words, in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.” (Press release)

WHAT ABSOLUTE RUBBISH – the second sentence, that is!

Just look at the photographs as pictures.

The Bechers and their students’ photographs might invoke a new concept of the pictorial but that does not mean the death of photography far from it. In fact, this conceptualisation opens up an expanded terrain of becoming for photography (continuing the theme of the last post on the work of Walker Evans). In this sense, the work of these artists is vital to an understanding of the place of photography within the observation, construction and taxonomy of contemporary culture and its pictorial representation. Everything in contemporary art relates not to beauty or aesthetics but to the social.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

.
Many thankx to the Städel Museum for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image. For more information please see the interactive website.

 

One of the most radical changes in art’s relation to its aesthetic, media, and economic contexts is closely associated with the students of the first Becher Class at the Düsseldorf art academy – but even more so with the names of their teachers, Bernd and Hilla Becher. The exhibition brings together 200 major works, some in large format, by these important artists, as well as a selection of their early works.

 

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

 

“This is a purely economic architecture […]. It is erected, used and discarded.”

Becher, Bernd and Hilla cit. in: “Beauty in the Awful”, in: Time. The Weekly Newsmagazine, 94, 10, 5 September 1969, p. 69.

 

The same subject in nine different types: as in a scientific documentary the photos show nine coal silos before a neutral light-grey background. The Bechers’ photos all follow the same approach: from an elevated vantage point the artists photograph details and total views of objects or entire industrial facilities and position them centrally in the picture. Every detail is razor sharp. The sky is predominantly overcast. The photographs are black and white. Nothing is to distract from the subject, to guarantee a presentation that is as objective as possible.

Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser begin to collaborate in 1959. At the time both study at the art academy Düsseldorf. Two years later they marry. During the following five decades the artist couple produces mostly tableaus of several parts – consisting of three, nine, twelve or more photos; they call them typologies. Their subjects are disused headstocks, furnaces, oil refineries, water reservoir towers, grain silos, gasometres or even half-timbered houses in former workers’ settlements – all of them testimonies of a declining industrial culture.

The Bechers depict the half-timbered houses from the Siegerland in a sober and restrained fashion. The picture removes the buildings from their original context. One view follows the next. Thus the form of the single building becomes more important than its function. In the photographs the half-timbered houses become aesthetic objects with a sculptural character. Bernd and Hilla Becher do not present their images individually, but in a grid. Not the single photo is the work, but the total of the typology is.

When Hilla and Bernd Becher presented their works at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1969, this coincided with an exhibition on US-American minimal art – a juxtaposition that was to prove programmatic. In 1972 the American sculptor Carl Andre mentioned the insightful connection of the Bechers’ works and the movements of minimal and conceptual art. This prominent, art-theoretical connection significantly contributed to the great international success of the Bechers. This is also why – especially in the USA – the two are considered concept artists more than photographers. …

The Bechers’ method of working – ostensibly – is concerned with sobriety and anonymity, rigidity and objectivity. They work in series, where the whole and a part of this whole, total view and detail are balanced. Setting their photographs into the context of sculpture, they test the boundaries of the genres of photography and sculpture. Working and presenting their works in series, they move the photograph beyond the individual work: the viewer can never see everything at once; instead the eye oscillates between detail and general context.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' (detail) 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses (detail)
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5 cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) 'Half-Timber Houses' (detail) 1959-61/1974

 

Bernd Becher (German, 1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (German, 1934-2015)
Half-Timber Houses (detail)
1959-61/1974
Silver gelatine print on baryta paper
152.4 x 112.5cm
Sammlung Deutsche Bank
© Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher

 

 

Candida Höfer (*1944) 'Weidengasse Cologne VIII 1977' 1977 (2013)

 

Candida Höfer (German, b. 1944)
Weidengasse Cologne VIII 1977
1977 (2013)
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
42.6 x 36.7cm
Loan from the artist
© Candida Höfer, Köln; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

Volker Döhne (*1953) 'Untitled (Colourful)' 1979 (2014)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Untitled (Colourful)
1979 (2014)
Colour print from colour transparency
37 x 47cm
Private collection
© Volker Döhne, Krefeld 2017

 

Thomas Ruff (*1958) 'Interior 1 D' 1982

 

Thomas Ruff (German, b. 1958)
Interior 1 D
1982
Chromogenic colour print
47 x 57cm
Loan from the artist
© Thomas Ruff; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

Andreas Gursky (*1955) 'Doorman, Passport Control' 1982 (2007)

 

Andreas Gursky (German, b. 1955)
Doorman, Passport Control
1982 (2007)
Inkjet print
43.2 x 52.5cm
Loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers
© Andreas Gursky / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017 / Courtesy Sprüth Magers Berlin London

 

Axel Hütte (*1951) 'Moedling House' 1982-1984

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
Moedling House
1982-1984
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
66 x 80cm
Loan from the artist
© Axel Hütte

 

Petra Wunderlich (*1954) 'Fossa Degli Angeli, Italy' 1989

 

Petra Wunderlich (German, b. 1954)
Fossa Degli Angeli, Italy
1989
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
61 x 75.2cm
Private collection
© Petra Wunderlich; VG Bild-Kunst 2017

 

 

From 27 April to 13 August 2017, the Städel Museum is staging a comprehensive survey on the Becher Class at the Düsseldorf art academy and the major paradigm shift in the medium of artistic photography with which the Bechers and their students are associated. With the aid of some 200 photographs by Volker Döhne, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, Tata Ronkholz, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Thomas Struth and Petra Wunderlich – a group of whom some enjoy international renown and others are due for rediscovery – the exhibition will examine the influence exerted by Bernd and Hilla Becher on their students at the Düsseldorf school. What unites the students’ works with those of their teachers? How do they differ? Is there really such a thing as the “Becher School” or is it ‘merely’ a matter of several highly successful photographers who happened to be studying at the ‘right place’ at an especially propitious moment in history? And how have those artists influenced our present conception of what a picture is? Taking the artist duo’s work as a point of departure, the exhibition “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class” will acquaint viewers with the radical changes in the medium of artistic photography that became manifest in the works of the Becher pupils in the eighties and above all the nineties, and investigate the art-historical impact of this development up to the very present. It will feature major large-scale works as well as key early endeavours by the members of what is presumably the most influential generation of German photographers in the field of fine art.

The students of the first in a long line of Becher Classes at the Düsseldorfer art academy introduced elementary changes to contemporary art’s aesthetic, media and economic contexts. They not only contributed decisively to shaping international photography in the 1990s, but also fundamentally redefined the status and perception of artistic photography in general. Their works can be considered as one of the most self-confident emancipations of photography as art in the mediums history, while at the same time reflecting the (not merely digital) moment when the boundaries between the media dissolve.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher’s first – meanwhile world-famous – students played a tremendously important role in establishing photography as an expressive medium on a par with other art forms. The nine artists featured in our show occupy a realm where the distinction between painting and photography is no longer clear. The permeability of the boundary between the media is deliberate in their work, and in that respect they mirror one of the key focuses of the Städel Museum’s collection of contemporary art,” observes Städel director Dr Philipp Demandt. And exhibition curator Dr Martin Engler adds: “What the teachings of Bernd and Hilla Becher sparked off – and their students developed further – is a new conception of the artwork according to which the boundaries between sculpture, painting and photography dissolve in terms of media and aesthetics alike. In other words, in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.”

The founding of a chair for artistic photography at the Düsseldorf art academy in 1976 provided perhaps the single most important impulse for a change in how the medium of photography was perceived. In close cooperation with his wife Hilla Becher, Bernd Becher held that chair until 1996. Even before their appointment to the Düsseldorf school, the Bechers had been taking pictures of historical industrial architecture, subscribing to a work concept that exceeded the scope of a common documentary approach in photography. They portrayed mining headframes, blast furnaces, gas tanks, water towers and other testimonies to a vanishing industrial culture – frontally, in central perspective, with fascinating depth of field, and where possible before the backdrop of a uniformly grey sky. They arranged the individual shots in grids to form large-scale tableaus they called typologies. The concern here was no longer merely the illustration of reality, but its perception. Reality could no longer be depicted singly, but only in a multiplicity of simultaneous images. From the formal aesthetic point of view, the staging of the pictorial subjects was now far more than documentary in nature. The affinity to minimal and concept art – evident in the rigour of the pictorial vocabulary, the industrial aesthetic and the new perception of a work in stages – is unmistakable.

Especially in their early work, the students of the first Becher Class explored their teachers’ artistic strategy with great intensity. Yet as they continued to pursue it in the nineties, they did so ever more independently, and in their own highly individual styles. With the aid of various strategies in terms of scale, presentation and motif, and not least of all with abstract pictorial inventions provoked by digital image techniques, they took the interpenetration of the mediums of painting and photography to an extreme. The result was a new concept of the picture that blurs aesthetic and media distinctions. “The dissolution of media boundaries, but also the use of technical innovations, are characteristic of the works of the first Becher Class. It is here that the impact of a changing media culture is felt,” explains Dr Jana Baumann, the co-curator of the exhibition.

A show devoted to such a complex phenomenon on the one hand, and such productive teaching activities on the other, must inevitably be limited in scope. “Photographs Become Pictures” concentrates deliberately on the students of the early years of the Becher Class, beginning with Höfer, Döhne, Hütte and Struth in 1976 and ending with the completion of Gursky’s and Sasse’s studies in 1987/1988. In retrospect, it is precisely in the heterogeneity of the first Becher Class – with its wide range of approaches that have influenced our present-day understanding of the pictorial image – that the success of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s teachings is evident.

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) is known above all for her pictures of public interiors such as libraries, universities, museums and waiting rooms. Nevertheless, the purely documentary aspect is ultimately of secondary importance to her, as is also true of her teachers. Particularly when she turned to colour photography, she began producing iconically clear shots of meaning-charged interiors extremely striking in their rigorous aesthetic. In composition, repetition and rhythm as well as the sculptural emphasis, Höfer’s formal staging of her interiors is reminiscent of the Becher typologies.

A distinct affinity to the typologies is also evident in early street shots by Thomas Struth (b. 1954), such as West Broadway, Tribeca, New York (1978) or Sommerstrasse, Düsseldorf (1980). He proceeded in a manner similar to his teachers, but broadened his spectrum of motifs. He is concerned in his work with cultural structures; in addition to streets he also depicts museums or religious cult sites and portrays families. With the aid of social and ethnological allusions he reveals orders and interrelationships, thus achieving a universal survey of human and their lifeworld in imagery.

Petra Wunderlich‘s (b. 1954) black-and-white series depict details of churches or quarries that the artist has introduced to a new, abstract compositional framework. By this method she reduces architecture visually to its stereometric tectonics in such a way that elementary architectonic forms unexpectedly emerge from the “broken” surfaces of nature. Wunderlich’s photographs, like those by the Bechers, can be read as sociological and historical testimonies.

The workgroups of Volker Döhne (b. 1953) closely resemble Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ typologies with regard to concept and motif alike. He developed series such as Small-Scale Iron Industry (1977/78) or Small Railway Bridges and Underpasses in the Bergisches and Märkisches Land (1979). With his experimental Colour (1979) series, he then emancipated himself from his teachers.

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) was interested primarily in factory gates, shop windows, beverage kiosks and snack bars, which she photographed in the even light of grey days. Many aspects of these works are strongly reminiscent of the Becher photographs: the consistent placement of the subject at the pictorial centre, the unchanging size of the prints, but also the serial, typologically comparative approach.

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) is likewise deeply indebted to his teachers’ serial method, which we encounter in his work in ever-different formulations. His portraits as well as the strongly enlarged nocturnal shots of, in part, found material, convey his fundamentally sceptical attitude towards photography’s claim to truth and documentation. His persistent investigations of new pictorial sources and technologies are perhaps the most impressive demonstrations of the manner in which Ruff continues the approach of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Axel Hütte‘s (b. 1951) early architectural details investigate social situations using a mode of photographic expression distinguished by distance and anonymity. Within this context, he devotes himself as much to spoiled landscapes as to supposedly untouched nature which nevertheless has always been formed by human intervention. A conspicuous aspect of his work is the strong reference to historical landscape painting, whose formal compositional principles he both copies and deconstructs. Whereas the Bechers directed their attention to the sculptural or conceptual potential of their pictures, Hütte focusses on painting as the leading medium of modern art.

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) initially devoted himself to highly artificial and at the same time prosaic arrangements of petit-bourgeois domestic culture. His later “tableaus” represent a virtual antithesis to the reductive rigour of these early works. Using digital and analogue techniques alike, he began processing found pictures as well as images of his own making, in which context he blurred the distinction between painting and photograph beyond recognition.

Andreas Gursky‘s (b. 1955) early photographs are likewise characterised by a keen interest in everyday surroundings – the private as well as the public sphere, the context of work as well as leisure time. Like Sasse, he investigates the aesthetic boundary between photographic and painterly image production. By means of digital manipulations he uses to duplicate and mount the pictorial motif to the point of abstraction, he creates perplexing pictorial architectures that merge construction and reality in large-scale colour prints.

The development of the Becher Class shows how concept art’s expanding notion of the artwork led to a new concept of the pictorial including photography. What the teachers introduced in rudiments was taken by their students and the following generation of artists to a momentous change in the picturing of reality. The realisation that photography cannot reproduce reality impartially does not detract from the medium. On the contrary, it means an enhancement in terms of artistic potential. What is more, the lack of focus in the portrayal of reality – in the literal and figurative sense alike – enriches photography’s complexity. It is not least of digital changes that enables innovative pictorial invention. Yet the boundaries of the photographic image also became fluid in the development from individual work to typology and series, and from detail to overall image. The answer to all questions about the significance, classification, doctrine and conception of what we refer to as the “Becher School” can thus be found in an insight as simple as it is surprising: in the very moment in history when photography emancipated itself to become an independent medium, it sounded its own death knell.

Press release from the Städel Museum

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

At left, Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner) (detail) 1988 (2003)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Candida Höfer (left) and Thomas Struth (b. 1954) Louvre 3, Paris 1989 1989 (2012) (right)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Struth (b. 1954) Paradiese 09 Xi Shuang Banna, Provinz Yunnan, China, 1999

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'Paradiese 09' 1999

 

Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
Paradiese 09
Xi Shuang Banna, Provinz Yunnan, China, 1999

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) with House No. 1 I 1987 (right)

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Axel Hütte (b. 1951)

 

Axel Hütte (*1951) 'Castellina' 1992 (2015)

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
Castellina
1992 (2015)
Chromogenic colour print
98.4 x 120.3cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung © Axel Hütte

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Thomas Struth (b. 1954) The Consolandi Family, Mailand, 1996 (2014) (left)

 

Exhibition views “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class”
Photo: Städel Museum

 

 

The Bechers

For their photographs Bernd and Hilla Becher are awarded the “Golden Lion” in the category of “sculpture” at the Venice Biennale in 1990. How is that possible? Surprisingly at the time there was no separate category for photography at the Biennale. But this is not the real reason. Already in 1969 the first larger exhibition of the Bechers is called “Anonymous Sculptures”, just like their first volume of photographs. The artists very consciously link the genres of photography and sculpture. This idea informs their entire oeuvre.

Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser begin to collaborate in 1959. At the time both study at the art academy Düsseldorf. Two years later they marry. During the following five decades the artist couple produces mostly tableaus of several parts – consisting of three, nine, twelve or more photos; they call them typologies. Their subjects are disused headstocks, furnaces, oil refineries, water reservoir towers, grain silos, gasometres or even half-timbered houses in former workers’ settlements – all of them testimonies of a declining industrial culture.

 

An Overall Concept

When Hilla and Bernd Becher presented their works at the Städtische Kunsthalle Düsseldorf in 1969, this coincided with an exhibition on US-American minimal art – a juxtaposition that was to prove programmatic. In 1972 the American sculptor Carl Andre mentioned the insightful connection of the Bechers’ works and the movements of minimal and conceptual art. This prominent, art-theoretical connection significantly contributed to the great international success of the Bechers. This is also why – especially in the USA – the two are considered concept artists more than photographers.

The Bechers’ method of working – ostensibly – is concerned with sobriety and anonymity, rigidity and objectivity. They work in series, where the whole and a part of this whole, total view and detail are balanced. Setting their photographs into the context of sculpture, they test the boundaries of the genres of photography and sculpture. Working and presenting their works in series, they move the photograph beyond the individual work: the viewer can never see everything at once; instead the eye oscillates between detail and general context.

The artist couple directs the attention to formal, creative aspects of the photographed edifices at the same time allowing them to disappear in the typology’s grid. The rigidity of their pictorial vocabulary and the interest in an industrial aesthetic evidences the close proximity of the Bechers’ creative work to minimal and concept art.

 

Photography in Germany

“In principle it [photography] was a fallow field, where nothing ‘noteworthy’ had taken place in the past fifty years. We saw us in the tradition of objective photography of the 1920s; Bernd and Hilla Becher were the first to reconnect to this. There was absolutely nothing that we could fight or needed to disengage with. We could start from scratch.” ~ Thomas Ruff

 

“New Objectivity” this was the motto of the 1920s – also in photography. It was no longer the pictorial language of painting, but precision, focus and truth to detail, characteristics of photography that had garnered the artists’ interest.

The photographer August Sander focused on the society of the Weimar Republic and created a typology: in 1925 his pictorial atlas People of the 20th Century, where he systematically assembled hundreds of portraits of stereotypes of people of the most diverse social backgrounds and occupations. All of his sitters are portrayed frontally, which makes the photographs comparable. Sander also engaged in the photography of landscapes, industrial sites and cities.

Two more representatives of the photography of New Objectivity are also worth mentioning here: Albert Renger-Patzsch recorded industrial buildings and machinery in a sober directness. Karl Blossfeldt adopted scientific standards and photographed plants – always before a neutral background, removed from their natural setting.

Bernd and Hilla Becher draw on these approaches and develop them in their works. With a few exemptions, photography was not considered an autonomous artistic medium in Germany. Still in the 1960s, photography in art predominantly served as a means of documentation of actions, happenings and performances. Yet painting and photography interact. The painter Gerhard Richter for example, used photos as templates for his paintings since the early 1960s. The Bechers in turn greatly contributed to the recognition of photography as autonomous artistic medium with their photographs.

 

The Becher Class: Adoption, Distinction

DÖHNE GURSKY HÖFER HÜTTE RONKHOLZ RUFF SASSE STRUTH WUNDERLICH

These are the students of the first Becher class. In 1976 Bernd Becher is appointed first professor for photography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. In close cooperation with his wife Hilla he teaches there for twenty years. Their first students become artists, who will have a formative influence on photography in the 1980s and the 1990s internationally. The Becher students intensely study their teachers’ work. Especially in their early works comparable approaches develop: a distanced perspective, an interest in architecture and striving for technical precision.

The Bechers are preoccupied with an industrial architecture in decline, representative also of the social changes affecting the respective region. Taking this as a starting point, their students consider their direct surroundings and social contexts. They seek to identify systems of classification and in their photographs investigate the relationship of individual work and series. In the process the Becher students adopt their own positions. They discover new themes, techniques and creative strategies. Regardless of the distinctions they are indebted to the conceptual approach of their teachers, which they then developed in their individual ways.

In their teaching and their work Bernd and Hilla Becher explore a concept of the image, where medial and aesthetic distinctions of sculpture, painting and photography dissolve. Their students continue this work in very different ways. In the 1980s and 1990s their enquiries lead to a critical reflexion of the possibilities of representing reality. The lack of focus in the depiction of reality – literally and figuratively – represent an increase in artistic complexity. Innovative pictorial creations were now possible by way of digital intervention.

The borders of the photographic image blur at the stage between single work and typology and series. The alternation of perception, oscillating between detail and total image extend the possibilities of photography. The meaning of what is called “Becher school” can be summarised in a simple and surprising statement: at the historic moment, when photography becomes an independent medium, it also realises its potential and explores its limits. Photography reaches its limits, transgresses it and thus ultimately questions its existence.

 

Kiosks and Streets

The developments in American photography are also important to the Becher-students: Ed Ruscha, whose photos show everyday subjects, is one of their role models. In 1966 he creates Every Building on the Sunset Strip. With a simple handheld camera Ruscha photographs every building on the Los Angeles boulevard of that name; he presents his pictures in a fanfold or an artist’s book. This quickly reveals the serial principle behind the work. Volker Döhne’s approach in Reconstruction II is similar. He, too, documents the commercial architecture, largely determining the surrounding.

Ice cream parlour, garage, drug store, stationers, dwelling house, shoe shop – nicely aligned. Volker Döhne focuses on the urban space dominated by nondescript post war architecture and empty sites. Other than his American colleague Ed Ruscha, Döhne always positions his camera head-on in the same angle. Surprisingly this emphasises the buildings’ volume. Like his teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher he emphasises the three-dimensional, sculptural aspect of buildings and pursues a concept that he determined before he began to photograph.

The Bechers assemble identical, yet different photographs to a static tableau. Döhne on the other hand, required the viewer to move along the strip and proceed down the row of photographs. Above all the viewer must add together the photos of the Krefelder Straße by himself: the work forms as a result of the viewer’s active viewing and perception.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Ostwall corner Rheinstraße, (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Krefeld, Ostwall corner Rheinstraße, (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 82 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 82 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 84 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 84 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 86 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 86 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37cm
Private collection

 

Volker Döhne (b. 1953) 'Krefeld, Rheinstraße 88 (Reconstruction II)' 1990 (1992)

 

Volker Döhne (German, b. 1953)
Krefeld, Rheinstraße 88 (Reconstruction II)
1990 (1992)
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
47 × 37cm
Private collection

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Beverage kiosk, Düsseldorf, Hermannstraße 31' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (German, 1940-1997)
Beverage kiosk, Düsseldorf, Hermannstraße 31
1978
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
41.2 x 51.2cm
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Köln/Dauerleihgabe der Sparkasse KölnBonn
© Tata Ronkholz, Nachlassverwaltung Van Ham Art Estate 2017

 

 

Cigarette and gumball machines are fixed to exterior walls. Advertising posters overlap. Beverages, magazines and sweets are visibly lined up behind glass. It is Tata Ronkholz’ serial presentation that enables the comparison of the kiosks and their study as a social phenomenon in urban contexts.

Kiosks are everyday meeting points and the setting for social life. At the same time their role fundamentally changed in the past decades. Ronkholz photographs kiosks as socially grown places. She positions them centrally in their architectural environment – people are absent. This is what the photos have in common with Becher-photographs. Like her teachers, Ronkholz is committed to the conservation and archiving of a changing urban culture.

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Dusseldorf, Sankt-Franziskusstraße 107' 1977

 

Tata Ronkholz (German, 1940-1997)
Dusseldorf, Sankt-Franziskusstraße 107
1977
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne / Permanent Loan of the Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Without title' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (German, 1940-1997)
Without title
1978
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Foundation Culture, Cologne / Dauerleihgabe der Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

Tata Ronkholz (1940-1997) 'Düsseldorf, Germany, Konkordiastraße 85' 1978

 

Tata Ronkholz (German, 1940-1997)
Düsseldorf, Germany, Konkordiastraße 85
1978
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
41.2 × 51.2cm
Courtesy The Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne / Permanent Loan of the Sparkasse KölnBonn

 

 

PICTURE PARALLELS

Bernd and Hilla Bechers students are linked to the work of their teachers in many ways. And yet they devote themselves, in part, to new motifs, subjects, and picture formats during their studies. In addition to architecture, they also photograph interiors, simple everyday objects or people.

In the early 1980s the Becher-students Axel Hütte and Thomas Ruff turn to portrait photography practically at the same time. They capture their models with neutral facial expressions, generally head-on before a monochrome background. The extreme setting makes the individual recede while the surface of the background dominates. In the series the single faces turn into an interchangeable motif somewhere between person and typology.

 

From Near and Far

The directions of the persons’ gazes differs. Nothing distracts from their faces. The neutral background and the close details are reminiscent of giant passport photographs. One almost overlooks that some of the sitters are famous artists today.

Axel Hütte’s portraits with their conscious play with blurring and sharpness are irritating: some areas in the photo show up the slightest detail, while others are slightly blurred – a conscious reference to the Bechers’ works, characterised by their extreme depth of focus. When observing Hütte’s works from close-up the face becomes a surface of structures. If one wants to see it in focus, one needs to distance oneself. Thus the viewer is kept at bay and always in motion.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) '15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)' 1988 (2003)

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)
1988 (2003)
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
113 x 91 each cm
Loan from the artist

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) '15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner)' (detail) 1988 (2003)

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
15 artists USA (David McDermott, Stephen Prina, Mike Kelley, Peter McGough, David McDermott, Doug Starn, Mike Starn, Jeff Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ross Bleckner) (detail)
1988 (2003)
Silver gelatin print on baryta paper
113 x 91 each cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

PICTURES GENERATION

Thomas Ruff explores the gap between reality and image. This is something he shares with the American artists of the so-called “Pictures Generation” from the 1970s and 1980s. This informal group of artists, among them Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and Richard Prince, grew up with a flood of pictures in cinema, television and the print media. Their works show distrust for the media, as well as a fascination with it. The artists make use of existing images from film, advertising and art. They copy, quote and redesign this material – more subtly than the artists from American Pop Art in the 1960s. Instead of working with found images in print, collage or painting, the artists of the “Pictures Generation” make small interventions. By introducing minor changes or by producing a practically identical copy of an image they very consciously play with conventional ways of perception. In their works they draw attention to mechanisms of picture production and the methods of artificial construction of reality through pictures.

 

Photos of Faces

Like Axel Hütte, Thomas Ruff does not believe in an image of human character. He is convinced that only the exterior reality – the appearance – can be represented. In this sense Ruff’s portraits are photos of faces that resemble expressionless surfaces. The monochrome background hides any hint at a recognisable location.

The face becomes a surface and thus resembles a projection screen for an advertising message. The serial juxtaposition turns the individual in Ruff’s photographs into a type that also represents a particular generation. The stereotypes communicated by mass media and the influence of images on individual and collective opinion-forming are being questioned.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'Portrait (G. Benzenberg)' 1985

 

Thomas Ruff (German, b. 1958)
Portrait (G. Benzenberg)
1985
Chromogenic colour print
41 × 33cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

“Looks good. Continue in colour.”

The bed, bath and living rooms, the kitchen unit and the furniture of the 1950s and 1970s, Thomas Ruff finds at the homes of relatives and friends in the Black Forest, where he comes from. Bernd and Hilla Becher preferably work in black and white. Ruff on the other hand starts experimenting with colour photography early on during his studies:

“At some point I started, making use of the colour practice, which I […] had developed, in my interiors, and I thought this looked better than in black and white photos. The colleagues said, you cannot do this. Then I also asked Bernd Becher and he said: “Looks good. Continue in colour.”

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'Interior 3 A' 1979

 

Thomas Ruff (German, b. 1958)
Interior 3 A
1979
Chromogenic paint removal
45.7 x 39.4cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

A Question of Mise-en-Scène

The two clips on yellow ground look like two flies. The bright background emphasises the form of the represented objects. Their original function becomes secondary. The simple stationary objects become worthy of the photographer’s meticulous attention. Jörg Sasse uses and parodies the strategies of advertising photography, ever concerned with presenting an object as something special.

From the start, Sasse’s work shows a painterly tendency as well as a penchant for abstraction. This is also apparent in a sequence of still lives with reduced colour and shapes. In his early work Sasse is interested in his immediate environment. He seeks to capture the unusual in the everyday. This links his work with the typologies of his teachers. Other than they do, Sasse does not give titles to his works; instead he gives them random numbers. This allows him to remove the represented object even further from its original context without offering a new interpretation.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 'ST-84-12-06' 1984

 

Jörg Sasse (German, b. 1962)
ST-84-12-06
1984
Chromogenic paint removal
18 × 24cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

Kitchen, Bath Room and Living Room

Almost in symmetry Jörg Sasse’s photo shows a light blue jug and a glass jug on two hobs. It belongs to a series, which Sasse dedicated to modest interiors between the post war years and the economic miracle. Sometimes the photos show individual objects, sometimes a combination of two or three objects. They capture details of tiles, furniture or floors.

They give the impression as if the objects were arranged by coincident or as if the inhabitants had left them behind like this. At the same time the scenes appear to be very artificial. Sasse transforms colour, shape and structure of the interior settings into individual, abstract compositions. He focuses on formal contrasts, sequences and similarities. According to the artist it is “not the preoccupation with interiors but with the picture.” The photographer is more interested in the painterly composition than in the representation of reality.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 'W-84-02-13, Dusseldorf' 1984

 

Jörg Sasse (German, b. 1962)
W-84-02-13, Dusseldorf
1984
Chromogenic paint removal
57.2 × 67.6cm
Courtesy Gallery Wilma Tolksdorf

 

 

Courtyards and Street Canyons

The artists Axel Hütte and Thomas Struth share an interest in urban non-spaces, indistinct streets or architectures.

In the 1980s modernist residential dwellings like the brutalist, square James Hammett House in London, become increasingly less popular and are turned into social housing. The raw concrete façade of the London block of flats spreads across almost the entire picture. The empty square in front of it is abandoned. There is no sign of inhabitants: a forbidding place.

Like Bernd and Hilla Becher in their pictures of industrial buildings, Axel Hütte emphasises the angular and unwieldy shapes of the architecture in his London series. From a distance the sad, functional façade appears to be an abstract pattern of rhythmically changing shades of grey, behind which the architecture recedes.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 'James Hammett House' 1982-1984

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
James Hammett House
1982-1984
Silver gelatin print on baryte paper
66 x 80cm
Loan of the artist

 

 

In the Street

The row of houses on New York’s 21st Street seems never ending. Old houses and modern high rises alternate and form a sequence of textures and geometric forms rich in contrast. Thomas Struth was struck by the deep street canyons of the metropolis. He took his photos from the middle of the street, positioning the camera at eye-level – a method that resembles that of his teachers. It is an unusual perspective unfamiliar to both pedestrians and drivers.

Struth begins capturing urban spaces already when in Cologne and Düsseldorf. A stipend takes him to New York in 1978. His photographic approach offers a completely new view of the city’s urbanity and structure.

“I may very well stem from the legacy of documentary photography and do use its means and perspective, but my true concern exceeds this. […] To me the street is a space, where manifold influences and historical events convene and become apparent. The public space has a subconscious language, addressing us continuously.”

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York' 1978 (1987)

 

Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
West 21st Street, Chelsea, New York
1978 (1987)
Gelatine silver print on baryta paper
66 x 84cm
DZ BANK art collection at the Städel Museum
© Thomas Struth

 

 

VARIETY

Landscapes, families, places of leisure, libraries, museums – the subjects of the Becher-students are equally as varied as their approach to photography. Their own positions develop more and more, while shared characteristics with their teachers’ oeuvre become apparent.

“Not the subject, but the representation of a landscape is what matters to me.” ~ Axel Hütte

Almost two thirds of the picture are concealed by thick fog. The rocks in the foreground, however, are razor sharp. In Furka Axel Hütte plays with the contrast of diffusion and focussed parts of the picture. He explores landscape photography and thus consciously enters into competition with the genre of painting.

Foggy landscape is of great importance in the paintings of German Romanticism. This art movement, which began in the late 19th century, is characterised by mystic nature, where religious ideas are intertwined with subjective sentiment. Caspar David Friedrich is recognised as one of the most important representatives of Romanticist landscape painting. To him nature mirrored the human soul. In his painting Mountains in the Rising Fog, which he painted around 1835, the hills are veiled and only the outlines can be made out. In his photographs, Hütte refers to this tradition and employs similar techniques to guide the viewer’s gaze and to compose the picture. The landscape can be sensually grasped. The atmosphere and the subjective experience come to the fore. While his teachers sought the proximity to sculpture, Hütte’s work reflects the strategies of painting.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Axel Hütte (b. 1951) 'Furka' 1994 (2012)

 

Axel Hütte (German, b. 1951)
Furka
1994 (2012)
Chromogenic colour print
56.7 × 65.7cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung

 

 

The Silence Beside the Storm

Andreas Gursky’s works are dedicated to traffic hubs, mass events, economic centres, transit zones or places of leisure. Gursky’s focus is always on the common denominator and questions the relationship of man with nature and society. The photograph Teneriffa, Swimming Pool shows a holiday resort from a bird’s eye perspective that makes the tiny holidaymakers almost disappear. The force of nature represented by the foaming sea is in stark contrast with the artificial silence of the adjacent pool.

Like his teachers, Gursky keeps a distance to his subject. But unlike them he does not work in series and concentrates on single works. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s compositions are always about one centrally positioned object. Gursky’s images on the other hand are rich in detail and the motives are spread across the picture plane in captivating sharpness – he plays with visual challenge.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955) 'Teneriffa, Swimming Pool' 1987

 

Andreas Gursky (German, b. 1955)
Teneriffa, Swimming Pool
1987
Chromogenic colour print
104.5 × 127cm
On loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers

 

 

Own Vantage Points

Candida Höfer too, photographs public spaces. Her photographs follow the architecture of the buildings she finds. At the same time she chooses unusual positions for her camera and thus resists the symmetries or views prescribed by the spaces. Her photos defy architectural hierarchies and structures and thus communicate the spatial experience in a particular way.

Waiting Room Cologne III 1981 is an early example of Höfer’s artistic method. The furniture reaches diagonally into the space, a dynamic underscored by the pattern of the parquet flooring. The row of tables and chairs in the bottom corner is cut off by the edge. Instead of creating a balanced symmetrical composition, she works with alternative vantage points.

This allows Höfer to emphasise her personal view of the interior architecture. Concurrently she is enquiring how the architectural space is influenced by the way people use it in the course of time. The Waiting Room with Neo-Baroque décor dating from the second half of the 19th century forms a stark contrast to the simple furniture that is easily 100 years less old.

“By means of the print I then create my own space once again. It is not my intention to show the space in a manner as realistic as possible.”

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) 'Waiting Room Cologne III 1981' 1981

 

Candida Höfer (German, b. 1944)
Waiting Room Cologne III 1981
1981
Chromogenic colour print
155 × 155cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

Libraries as Brand

Above all Candida Höfer is famous for her large-scale interior views of libraries devoid of people. The workspaces in the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris are lined up like books in libraries. The artist frequently focuses on places that preserve and order knowledge and culture. Apart from libraries she also worked on museums or operas. She is interested in how humans influence architecture through their culture. Her photos are always determined by a cool sobriety. This is what they have in common with the photographs of the Bechers. However, Höfer always works with the light and the space present in each situation. She strives to capture the atmosphere and aura of a space.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Candida Höfer (b. 1944) 'Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris XIII 1998' 1998

 

Candida Höfer (German, b. 1944)
Bibliothèque Nationale de France Paris XIII 1998
1998
Chromogenic colour print
155 × 215cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

The Picture in the Picture

In his series Museum Photographs Thomas Struth focuses on imposing interior spaces such as the gallery at the Louvre in Paris – unlike Höfer, he always shows the visitors, too. They become a multifaceted continuation of the figures in the paintings on the wall. Through the photograph Struth establishes a connection of pictorial space and real space, the painterly and photographic space. Here, the formerly competing media painting and photography enter into a dialogue as equals.

Simultaneously the viewer is confronted with different levels of viewing: those who contemplate Struth’s photos inevitably also observe the visitors at the Louvre contemplating the art works there. Thus the artist prompts a reflection on how we deal with art and its history, with seeing and being seen. Struth does not influence the positions of the visitors in his Museum Photographs. He waits for situations that can serve as the basis of his compositions. Struth merely decides on the space and the visual angle he takes.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'Louvre 3, Paris 1989' 1989 (2012)

 

Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
Louvre 3, Paris 1989
1989 (2012)
Chromogenic colour print
152.2 × 168.3cm
DZ BANK Kunstsammlung im Städel Museum, Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main

 

 

Family Relations

The photo The Consolandi Family, Milano by Thomas Struth belongs to the series Family Portraits, which shows relationships that are complex and full of tension. The viewer is challenged to explore the connections of the family, reflected in subtle looks, mimics or posture.

The Family Portraits evolved from an unpublished project, which Struth and a friend of his, a psychoanalyst, pursued in the early 1980s. Patients were asked to submit a couple of photographs that were typical of their families, which Struth then combined in a portfolio. Drawing on this project, the photographer began to work with family portraits he took. He photographed people he knew in their homes. The individuals were asked to choose their position in a space that the artist had selected. Struth’s psychological interest in the family as a social fabric is evident. The order resembles a sociagram after all.

Like the Bechers’ works, Struth’s photographs are determined by an intrinsic dynamic full of tension. While his teachers work with industrial fields of force, he balances psychological energies. This results in an alternation of perception – the eye sways between single pictorial elements and the total composition.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Thomas Struth (*1954) 'The Consolandi Family, Milan 1996' 1996 (2014)

 

Thomas Struth (German, b. 1954)
The Consolandi Family, Milan 1996
1996 (2014)
Chromogenic colour print
178 × 214.2cm
Art Collection Deutsche Börse, Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation

 

 

PICTURE EDITING

In February 1982 the first great scandal about a digitally edited press picture occurs: for the title of the periodical National Geographic – actually indebted to scientific exactitude – the pyramids at Gizeh have been pushed closer together so they would fit the portrait format. This represents a fundamental shift in photo and media culture that also affects the work of the Becher students.

Ruff, Sasse and Gursky especially, develop their works digitally. This inevitably distances them from their teachers’ documentary approach more and more. The artists do not depict reality they create their own reality. This results in photographs that cannot be explained through analogue camera technology. The truth in the pictures is questioned, just like the viewer’s perception. In nascent form this approach is already present in the typologies created by the Bechers.

 

Digital interventions

This photo of an average residential block from 1987 marks a turning point in Thomas Ruff’s oeuvre. Things – namely a tree and a street sign – are missing. Ruff decided to have these details erased. He also retouched an opened skylight. This is one of the first digitally edited pictures in the circle of the Becher students. Ruff’s idea is to emphasise the symmetrical appearance and the hermetic quality of the building. Still, he is not really meddling with the picture’s structure of reality.

Ruff’s photos of the House Series confront the viewer with urban banality. The enormous scale of the works, measuring nearly 2 x 3 metres exaggerates the uneventfulness as a crucial characteristic of this architecture. From the 1980s the Becher students increasingly use large formats. They become a trademark of the group. Mostly presented with a wooden frame the artists elevate the photos to the level of paintings. Like the Bechers, Ruff worked in series, but no longer arranged his works in typologies. His series preserve the suspicion of a single image that might represent the world.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Thomas Ruff (b. 1958) 'House No. 1 I' 1987

 

Thomas Ruff (German, b. 1958)
House No. 1
1987
Chromogenic colour print
179 × 278cm
Loan from the artist

 

 

Giant Grid

In photos like Paris, Montparnasse Andreas Gursky enlarges the image to a monumental scale of over four metres in width. He, too, relies on digital editing. The frontal view of the residential block is presented in strictly right-angular lines. The building is so wide that it would be impossible to capture it in a single photo. Hence, Gursky used two photos and joined them on the computer.

From a distance, the geometrical grid of the building looks abstract. The skeleton structure of the block also means that the windows offer hundreds of single images. However, it is impossible to simultaneously perceive the detail as well as the overall structure. Gursky requires the viewer to constantly alternate his focus between close-up and distance.

“My pictures are always composed for two aspects […]. The smallest detail can be read from close up. From afar they are mega-signs.”

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

 

Exhibition view “Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class”
Photo: Städel Museum

 

Andreas Gursky (b. 1955) 'Paris, Montparnasse' 1993 (before 2003)

 

Andreas Gursky (German, b. 1955)
Paris, Montparnasse
1993 (before 2003)
Chromogenic colour print
207 × 422cm
On loan from the artist / Courtesy Sprüth Magers

 

 

Pixel and Pixel and Pixel

Sasse’s work 1546 (1993) also plays with perception at the border of abstraction. The single pixels as a trace of the digital reworking are immediately visible. The realistic representation of a curtain is ruptured. Instead pixel and square colour fields become the focus, while the original sense of space is lost. The photo appears two-dimensional.

Sasse takes up a basic issue with the illusion of space that has a long art historic tradition. Already in early Renaissance the artist and scholar Leon Battista Alberti considers painting as a window to the world. He considered it important for an illusionist way of painting to conceal the two-dimensionality of the canvas. In his oeuvre Sasses draws on this issue. He questions photography and painting’s claim to realism and questions the possibility of pictorially representing reality at all.

Anonymous text from the Becher Class at the Städel Museum website [Online] Cited 27/12/2021

 

Exhibition view "Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class"

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 1546, 1993 (centre) and Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) 7341, 1996 (right)

Jörg Sasse (b. 1962) '1546' 1993

 

Jörg Sasse (German, b. 1962)
1546
1993
Chromogenic colour print
137 × 200cm
Private collection

 

Jörg Sasse (*1962) '7341' 1996

 

Jörg Sasse (German, b. 1962)
7341
1996
Chromogenic colour print
93 x 150cm
DZ BANK art collection at the Städel Museum
© Jörg Sasse; VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2017

 

 

Städel Museum
Schaumainkai 63
60596 Frankfurt

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Wednesday and Thursday 10.00am – 9.00pm

Becher Class at the Städel Museum website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, an art and cultural memory archive, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Doctor of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

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Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Orphans and small groups’ 1994-96 Part 2

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