New York

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

Bernd and Hilla Becher have devoted their creative energies to a limited area of activity, but the narrow channel has not led to a cul-de-sac. They photograph still-used and abandoned industrial buildings, arranging the stark black-and-white photographs in groups of 3, 4, 8, 9, and 12. In this exhibition, the typological groupings included multiregional examples of a specific building type, similar structures from one geographical area (Pennsylvania coal tipples), and multiple views of a single building (the magnificent and decaying Ohio Works blast furnace in Youngstown). In every instance, the codification of these haunting industrial images forced questions about the relationship of function, esthetics, geography, and the social impact of advanced technology and largescale enterprise.

The specific industrial buildings and structures photographed range from vernacular and seemingly makeshift coal tipples (a device for unloading coal cars) to modern, technologically sophisticated blast furnaces, and also include mineheads, water towers, grain elevators, and gas tanks. The tipples look like match-stick structures hastily nailed together to grab the rocky hills of Pennsylvania coal country, a fitting symbol of the tenacity and ultimate decline of communities founded to develop a limited resource. In contrast, the smoking blast furnaces seem robust and enduring. Unlike the urgent, transient quality of the tipples, they aggressively claim and permanently alter the landscape; and yet, will their fate be any different from that of the now-quiet tipples?

The Bechers’ vision bridges the documentary-film still and photograp hic portraiture. There is an evenness of light, as if everything had been photographed on the kind of slightly overcast day that is sharply luminous. The drama of these photographs, however, does not come from the play of light and shadow but from the suspension of movement. It is the grand stillness of these industrial beasts that captivates and confuses. No people are present; no purpose is registered. The structures become anomalous, stripped of meaning by the photographers and by the shifting demands and technological patterns of a consumerist society.

The Bechers’ typological groupings isolate those features that are generated by function, but once this set is determined, the eye seeks the idiosyncratic detail—for instance, the shovel strapped to the side of a Chebanse, lllinois, grain elevator. There is always a sign of the particular, no matter how unwavering the set’s conditions may be. The groupings also force associations among old, dying industries and new, apparently thriving ones. Does the robust activity of the blast furnace or the refinery simply camouflage the precarious destiny of large scale industry? Are the grain elevators of agribusiness an indication of progress or yet another misapprehension of industrial well-being?

The industrial land scape is often hidden or ignored, but the Bechers’ photographs confirm that industry is too often the heart of a community, providing jobs, services, products, and security until it becomes technologically obsolete. These lucid images communicate that the future is fragile, even when the architecture is monumental.

Patricia C. Phillips