New York

Hilla and Bernd Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

Hilla and Bernd Becher take photographs of set kinds of things (grain elevators, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, water towers, etc.) under set conditions, so that the subject of each (composite) work is uniform and the position of each image is uniform: an equal discrete unit of equal discrete units. Two horizontal lines (of up to eight photographs per row) present specimens of each object-species (the biological analogy is oddly apt) in such a way that each image in the top row corresponds to the image directly below in the bottom row.

Iconic boldness and presumed sameness delay analysis—the images are and are not obvious. As the degree of difference-in-sameness varies, so does the quality of information. Often the difference is so subtle that the altered thing becomes an index to the formal/functional system of the water tower or all Water Tower; elsewhere it is merely incidental, and the forms, if not coincident, are redundant. With the photographs arranged in twos, no hierarchy is implicit; no pair is resolved in a third. So, even in the static sameness of the images, there is antinomy.

As each work is an analysis of forms of a species—is, that is, a typology—its context is not given, nor is it at first missed. Typicality affords a kind of simultaneity: each set of photographs, though taken throughout Northern Europe and America and over a 15-year period (1963-1978), exists only as a set. Decontextualization is proper here, for the real context is the text of form, the typology. Rational reconstruction is so given a methodology that the dislocation (a premise of the methodology) is glossed over. There is a contextuality here (sociological, ideological, whatever), but it is deferred; one adds it later.

Nevertheless, inasmuch as it is the exigency of function that makes for sameness, it is the contingency of context (e.g. local resources and architectural norms, topography) that allows for variation. One would posit an “arch-term” to govern both: an architectonic paradigm, an abstract form with propriety and priority. And we do seek the type of furnace, tower, etc., but it is a fiction: one intuits it, but the variations do not derive from it; it in fact does not exist.

Each set of photographs is a system of sorts: horizontally, the photographs seem to have a metonymic relation and, vertically, a metaphoric relation. But the poles of metonymy/metaphor are not distinct; no kind of sentence is formed, and the sign-system of each thing remains unclear. Analysis falls to allusiveness, as the furnaces and all come to look like a Byzantine order of saints, at once direct and oblique, whole and part, iconic and hieratic.

Rather than reinstating a locale, one sees in the things a context: the context of a specific mode of production. Though active elements, the structures seem like monuments, or ruins, of a stage of industrial capitalism. A nostalgia seeps into the supersession of these elements by advanced forms of production. The classificatory rigor cannot contend with the archaism, and in the dissection of these dead organisms is a charm, as “less industrial” becomes “primitive.”

Hal Foster