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PRINT January 2016

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Hilla Becher

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gas Tanks, 1983–1992 (detail), 2005, fifteen gelatin silver prints, overall 68 1/4 × 94 1/4".

WITH THE PASSING of Hilla Becher (née Hilla Wobeser in Potsdam, 1934), a major figure of German postwar visual culture has left the stage, following her lifelong collaborator and partner, Bernd Becher, who passed away in 2007.

If their individual contributions to the joint oeuvre have by now become inextricably fused, it was Hilla, in fact, who steered Bernd to the field of photography. Hilla had been trained first as a photographer in Potsdam, while Bernd had studied typographic design and painting in Stuttgart, before both enrolled at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf (he in 1957, she in 1958), inaugurating their fifty years of collaboration. It might also be noted that Hilla had spent her adolescence under the socialist regime of the German Democratic Republic, just like some of the Bechers’ future friends and artistic peers in Düsseldorf: the painters Blinky Palermo, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter.

To comprehend the complexity of the Bechers’ photographic project would first of all require us to situate their work in a slightly simplified map of historical contradictions: the opposition between East and West German upbringings; the dialectics of the Weimar era’s technophilic euphoria of New Vision photography, on the one hand, and the halting melancholia of that period’s Neue Sachlichkeit, on the other. We would also need to consider the contradictions between the Bechers’ desire to sustain the cultural continuity of the nation-state by resuscitating a specifically German photographic tradition, and West Germany’s ambitions to establish an internationalist, postfascist reconstruction of culture, as evident in the cosmopolitanism of Düsseldorf in the 1960s.

However, these oppositions can only clarify certain aspects of the Bechers’ seemingly limitless yet highly repetitive archival accumulations of European and American industrial architectures. Paradoxically, our comprehension of their sheer infinite structural comparisons (misleading one early enthusiast to associate their work with Johann Sebastian Bach’s) can be expanded by recognizing their practice’s self-imposed and rigorously enforced limitations.

The first of these was the Bechers’ prohibition of color. With hindsight, it appears all the more blatant now that their black-and-white law has been broken by all of their now equally—if not more—famous disciples (Elger Esser, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth). Overdetermined by the slowly evolving revelations of recent German history, the ties of German industry (e.g., IG Farben and Krupp) to war and the Holocaust, the Bechers’ mourning seems to have anchored itself in a melancholic loyalty to photography’s originary tonal and chromatic defaults.

A second, self-imposed restriction that the Bechers enforced throughout their image accumulations (Hilla once asked, rhetorically: “What is photography other than collecting?”) was determined by a different historical frame. Typically, the Bechers only documented those industrial architectural types that roughly paralleled the industrial (rather than the earlier artisanal) production of photography itself (from the 1880s to the 1960s). They never recorded any sites of actually contemporaneous energy production, such as nuclear power stations, or the seemingly faceless yet ever-multiplying buildings of postwar industrial administration; nor would the Bechers reflect on the conditions of collective consumption, palpably evident in the more recent architectural genres of suburbia and the shopping malls dotting European and American cities and landscapes. A geopolitical specificity corresponded to those historical parameters, since the Bechers never seem to have felt the desire to photograph in Asia or Africa or to collect images of industrial architectures in Latin America.

A third principle of restriction guiding the Bechers’ photographic documentation throughout was the systematic exclusion of human agents from the sites and architectures of production. Suppressing the evidence of the proletarian labor that had been or was still being performed at these sites, the Bechers only traced the work of anonymous industrial design and engineering. Unlike the case of Charles Marville, whose photographs of a disappearing Paris had to eliminate its inhabitants to accommodate the lengthy exposure times required by his camera, and unlike the absence of human subjects from most of Eugène Atget’s images, famously explained by Walter Benjamin as owing to the fact that every photograph depicted the scene of a crime, the Bechers’ exclusion of agents from sites of industrial production raises altogether different questions. Not even Bertolt Brecht’s famous challenge—his argument that even the exact photographic reproduction of the Krupp factories or of the AEG corporation was insufficient and would have to become part of a textual montage construction in order to actually document and illuminate the conditions of industrial labor and production—seems to apply.

Obviously, when the Bechers began their work in 1959, their situation and motivation differed fundamentally from Brecht’s earlier quest for a representation of the proletarian subject laboring in industrial architecture. Avoiding montage, the discreteness and stillness of the Bechers’ structuralist comparisons, their typologies of water and winding towers, gas tanks, and coal tipples, were presented either in serial sets or via multiple views of a singular building made by rotating around the same structure, a procedure they named with the slightly discomforting bureaucratic term Abwicklung (development). And just as Ed Ruscha elides human subjects in his representations of sites of consumption, since the compulsive acts of consumption cannot in fact constitute subjectivity, so, too, do the Bechers prohibit the photographic recording of the laboring subject under the advanced conditions of industrial exploitation. Depicting the laboring body photographically at that time would have either meant regressing to the Stakhanovite heroicization of proletarian industrial labor—as Soviet and Fascist photography had presented images of workers throughout the ’30s—or spectacularizing the laboring body (as in Sebastião Salgado’s project, for example) and exposing it to the scopic prurience of the photography collector’s comforts.

In the ’60s debates surrounding the dialectics of de-skilling and re-skilling—integral to the various rediscoveries of photographic cultures of the pre–World War II period, from Rauschenberg and Warhol to Richter, from Ruscha to the Bechers—Hilla and Bernd never disputed for a moment the binding primacy of the most rigorous artisanal photographic skills and genre conventions. If this was implicit from their very first photographs, their later rare but succinct commentaries explicitly claimed the presumed homogeneity of the German Neue Sachlichkeit photography of August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch as their point of departure and the horizon of their ambitions: a synthesis of typology and technique as summum bonum.

Just as Renger-Patzsch’s book title Die Welt ist schön (The World Is Beautiful) in 1928 had not been chosen by the photographer himself yet had triggered Benjamin’s spite for Renger-Patzsch’s principles, the equally pro-clamatory yet poignant title of the Bechers’ first major book publication in 1970, Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten (Anonymous Sculptures: A Typology of Technical Buildings),was apparently suggested by the publisher (but adopted by the artists in the end). Yet the book’s roughly two hundred unnumbered pages of full-frame photographs, grouped according to architectural function and utility, neither adopted Le Corbusier’s heroicizing counteridentification with the purist functionalism of the grain silo nor subscribed to the literally Fordist production pathos celebrated in Charles Sheeler’s propaganda commission for Henry Ford’s River Rouge plant in 1927.

But the title helped to propel the Bechers toward rightful international art-world acclaim, when Carl Andre’s early critical evaluation embraced them as fellow Minimalist sculptors in spirit, even though they actually promptedMinimalism’s demise by ringing in the age of Conceptualist photography.1 And indeed, if Ruscha’s de-skilled photographic recording of the architectures of everyday life defined one pole of the newly emerging photographic spectrum of Conceptualism, the Bechers’ rigorously enforced re-skilling initiated the European complement of photography’s resurgence as an artistic practice, restored to its former position as central to visual cultural production in the twentieth century.

In spite of their differences in skills, architectural iconography, and geographic location, both Ruscha and the Bechers aimed to expand the conception of the readymade, heretofore limited to an aesthetic of objects, to one of public architectural space and structures under the conditions of advanced forms of collective reification. Not surprisingly, the machinic and kinetic sculptures of Jean Tinguely, highly prominent in Düsseldorf in the late ’50s and early ’60s, were critically targeted by the Bechers as “examples of both romantic Luddism and ludism no longer adequate to the age and the place.”2

Even if the Bechers had stated early on—and would forever reiterate—that their project was strictly archival, primarily engaged in rescuing the industrial architecture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from imminent destruction and oblivion, and while they indeed contributed to the preservation efforts of what is now called industrial archaeology, it is difficult to imagine that the lasting and increasing attraction of their work to artists, art historians, collectors, and museums—and, further, their enormous impact on two generations of disciples—does not primarily emerge from their photography’s profoundly complex aesthetic dimensions.

In retrospect, the Bechers’ perhaps involuntarily melancholic contemplation of the vanishing architectural structures of the great century of the Industrial Revolution appears uncannily closer to de Chirico than to Le Corbusier. In spite of the solidly argued claims of the scholarly literature, which seems to have internalized the Bechers’ own prescription to adhere to a strictly positivist agenda and a purely historicist interpretation, situating their work in an unchallenged continuity of photographic typologies,3 their archive has acquired over time the ever more specific, deeply mnemonic, and disturbing features of a singular artistic achievement of postwar European art. And so we must recognize that the persistent power of the Bechers’ photographic legacy doesn’t only originate from their positivist desire to record and save the vanishing architectural structures of the age of industry. Rather, the power of their oeuvre results equally from a dialectic of remembering and repression, driving the repetition compulsion to form a complete and comprehensive archive—an absurd impulse innate within the photographic medium itself. This dialectic articulates the extreme ambivalence with which the Bechers contemplated the once-utopian Enlightenment, the promises of the industrial age as an era of continuous progress and collective advancement, only to recognize that these had now also delivered the legacies of industrialized death, dystopian catastrophe, and ecological destruction.

Benjamin H. D. Buchloh is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Modern Art at Harvard University.

NOTES

1. Carl Andre, “A Note on Bernhard and Hilla Becher,” Artforum, December 1972, 59–66.

2. Stated in various conversations with the author in the late 1970s.

3. See Susanne Lange, Bernd and Hilla Becher (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).