New York

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

Winding towers are conveying machines—industrial structures used to transport workers and materials into, and out of, iron ore, coal, and salt mines. Alternately called “tipples,” “A-frames,” or “pitheads,” they date from mid-19th-century England, locus of the Industrial Revolution, and have spread over today’s global terrain. Their basic form consists of two elevated wheels circumscribed by cables securing load-bearing cages that ascend or descend in opposite directions. Form is generally determined by function; however, these towers exist in various regional styles, ranging from rustic, often ramshackle wooden edifices (small mid-20th-century towers in eastern Pennsylvania) to intricate traceries of steel. Surveyed from the surrounding territory they appear as awkward but imposing gargantuan triangles, looming over the horizon.

Physically uncanny but wholly serviceable forms, these winding towers may be the most intriguing of the different industrial buildings that Bernd and Hilla Becher have photographed since 1956. Conceived as a presentation of one individual type, the recent exhibition consisted of 222 photographs taken over a 24-year period and arranged in the Bechers’ characteristic 6-to-15-unit grids. In its capacity, their method displays an enumerative vision that has justly been compared with August Sander’s, but it also rebounds against a specific architectural interest in basic typological forms. The independent structures are treated as elements within one species, combining generic resemblance with individual identity, accommodation to function with differentiation according to period, material, and locale. Their presentation, conforming to the Bechers’ normative approach, is keyed to the discernment of differences or details; each construction is placed full face or in perspective in the center of the frame, positioned close to the viewer and against a neutral background sky. A straightforward, precise, “documentary” approach, then, which enables all-out attention to the object, to material and fact. But it also tends toward hallucination, for the rhythm of form played against repeated form, of similarities salient through differences, and of obdurate structure opposing stylistic gradations links these images in an overarching ellipse. They defeat the superficiality of style by the immanence of structural form.

The Bechers occupy an important nodal position within a texture of different directions. On one hand, their work is an example of the intrusion of the photograph within art discourse, where it performs the role of documentation. On another, it indicates the importance of the typology to architectural terrain, much as it opposes, by example, the bombastic and mystifying tendency of recent architectural photography. And in a third way it phrases the objective, materialist practice heralded by Walter Benjamin in the first third of the century, indicating how this practice leads, like Benjamin’s, into a paradoxically visionary field.

Kate Linker