PRINT January 2016


Hilla Becher

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, 1963–1992, 2003, fifteen gelatin silver prints, overall 68 1/4 × 94 1/4".

Technology is above requiring an interpretation; it interprets itself. You merely need to select the right objects and place them precisely in the picture; then they tell their story of their own accord.
—Hilla Becher, 1989

IN READING interviews and conversations with Bernd and Hilla Becher over the years, I’ve noted the sentiments of the above quote reformulated in various ways; in turn, the Bechers’ subjects “tell their own stories” to the camera, and their subjects and the camera “cooperate” with and “perform” for one another. In addition to this, and from the very beginning, the Bechers insisted that there was no division of labor in their practice: “For us it plays no role as to who pushes the shutter for a particular picture . . . outsiders cannot tell who has taken a particular photo and we also often forget ourselves. It simply is not important.” Maybe this can begin to account for the strange quality of anonymity or distance that I perceived when I first experienced their work in independent bookstores and in university and art-school libraries of Los Angeles in the early to mid-1970s.

This perceived absence, or at least displacement, of the idea of the position of the photographer or author of the artwork signaled a distinct shift in tenses, from past—what was seen or witnessed by the photographer—to present: that of the spectator in front of an artwork. This shift from a represented past to a phenomenological present could also be seen as enacting a move away from a publication that functions as a site for the representation or reproduction of artworks existing elsewhere to one that exists as a site for the work itself. This shift overturns the hierarchy regarding the primacy of the art object to include the reproduction of the artwork as being of equal discursive value to the original objects themselves. It is no coincidence that the Bechers’ photographic project was making itself visible at the same time as Ed Ruscha’s publications, such as Thirtyfour Parking Lots, 1967.

What on first encounter appears to be mysterious turns out to be an extremely clear-eyed, unromantic, unidealized, pragmatic assessment of the role of the photographer or artist in relationship to the photographic apparatus. From the beginning, the project was clear: The two artists, working together, were to function more like historians, constructing a typology of forms of industrial architecture and compiling an archive representing their developments. The stated function of this archive was disarmingly simple: the study, through comparison and contrast, of the history or development of the architecture of industrial production. Such a clear statement of purpose. Such well-defined use-value. But for whom? To whom is this archive useful? It should be said here that the Bechers’ work was received primarily within the context of contemporary art, mostly Minimalism and Conceptual art. If an artwork can function as a proposition or a model that suggests what an artwork can be, in retrospect it’s possible for me to say that their project offered suggestions or gave permissions that were useful for me during my formation as a young artist. For example, they showed that rather than offering a model of self-expression and a display of subjectivity, the artist could function within the cultural arena, engaging with a larger cultural dialogue from a position of critical distance rather than as an expression of self.

Their work suggested to me that the position of the photographer within the photographic field was not fixed, that there is a larger network of possible positions that the artist or photographer may explore at will, and that a subject of inquiry could expand to include the program of the photographic industry itself. For example, the Bechers’ work not only depicts a history of industrial architecture but addresses the history of the industrial production of photography itself. If this seems far-fetched, I offer you as evidence their 1968 publication for the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach, titled Industriebauten (Industrial Buildings), which mimicked the appearance of an Agfa-Gevaert paper box, with the usual technical information supplanted by one bold word: BECHER. This conflation of the artists’ name with that of the best-known manufacturer of photographic film and paper in Germany at the time makes explicit the dialogue between singular representations of industrial architecture and the photographic industry utilized in its representation. Their literalization of the photographic program, their recasting of the artist as a functionary in relationship to this program, and their questioning of the role of the individual in relationship to the enactment of this program make it difficult to write about Hilla’s individual contribution to their collaborative project. The best way I know to honor Hilla in light of her recent passing is instead to suggest the ways in which the program to which she devoted her life might be of continued use to us as artists and cultural practitioners. After all is said and done, making something useful is the most one can hope for.

Christopher Williams is an artist based in Cologne and has been the professor of photography—a position created and held by the Bechers from 1976 to 1996—at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf since 2008.