Industrial art: The photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher
A water tower. A grain elevator. A gas tank. Unremarkable structures to some, but to photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, they were works of art.
A German couple working in the second half of the 20th century, the Bechers trained their sights on an unlikely subject: the rapidly vanishing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America. Through their lens, the ordinary became extraordinary.
"They saw their work as a way of seeing the sculpture in the everyday," said Jeff Rosenheim, curator of a Becher retrospective, now on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. "In a certain sense, their breakthrough was realizing that this was a kind of anonymous architecture that was made by industry to solve a function, but had this kind of natural, rigorous beauty."
Take these transmission towers, spare as Shaker chairs;
Or these spindly water towers – no two tanks alike;
Or these German gas tanks, each orb as unique as a thumbprint.
In these subtle differences – a sloping line, a tapered edge – the Bechers glimpsed whole worlds. Coal bunkers, cooling towers, gravel plants … nothing escaped their gaze.
Not even these framework houses in Germany's Siegen region, simple structures built without ornamentation but with unmistakable style.
Rosenheim said, "They not only noted the town in which the picture was made; they recorded the name of the current resident and their occupation, and many of those occupations were of miners. And so, in a certain sense, it's a portrait of the mining community seen metaphorically through the house in which they lived."
Bernd Becher died in 2007; Hilla died in 2015. Together, they left behind an archive of thousands of images that reveal the splendor of the everyday, provided that we take the time to look.
For more info:
- Exhibition: Bernd & Hilla Becher, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (through April 2)
- Exhibition Catalogue: Bernd & Hilla Becher (Metropolitan Museum of Art), in Hardcover
- Artnet: Bernd & Hilla Becher
- "Water Towers, USA, 1974-1983," and "Gas Tanks, 1963-1992" © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher; courtesy Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – Bernd and Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.
Produced by Robert Marston. Editor: Emanuele Secci.
for more features.