Bernd and Hilla Becher

I’ve seen Bernd and Hilla Becher’s black-and-white photographs of industrial structures innumerable times, but never quite like this: picture after picture, nearly 650 in all, showing buildings––water towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, winding towers, gravel plants, gas tanks, industrial facades, cooling towers. A single object per image, and a single category exemplified in a group of nine, twelve, or fifteen photographs installed in a strict rectangle. How gray and monotonous. How totally repetitive and devoid of surprises. And yet, as a whole, the exhibition, which spans the Bechers’ output from 1961 to 2002 and is organized by K21 director Armin Zweite, is as grandiose and mesmerizing as a piece of serial music––cold and detached but still exuding a strange melancholy. The architectural world the Bechers have pictured is rapidly fading away. Most of the anonymous creations depicted are gone forever. Some forty-five years ago, when the young German couple––he an art student, she a professional photographer––started to produce and exhibit their images, the fundamental significance of the endeavor was already clear to them: “Since these structures were disappearing more and more, we could imagine that conserving these things photographically would someday be of general interest.”

The Bechers have been drawn primarily to the classic industrial landscapes of Germany, France, Belgium, England, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the US. After the collapse of Communism and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, their work began to incorporate eastern Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe. The search for new variations of blast furnaces, grain elevators, and limekilns continues. Asked two years ago by critic Ulf Erdmann Ziegler whether they would hop a plane to Korea if they heard about an industrial edifice they had yet to photograph, Hilla answered, “I would!” to which Bernd rejoindered, “Hilla was in Siberia. . . . There weren’t any variations there that would contribute a great deal to the whole, let’s say, on the subject of blast furnaces. We already have enough of them.” So it may be that the Bechers’ mapping project is reaching an end, and the encyclopedia of a past universe of anonymous architecture, seemingly functional but full of visual enigmas, is coming to a conclusion––thus making the moment of the archive’s completion coincide with a moment that marks the photographic medium’s most severe transformation.

“The photographer’s vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand,” wrote John Szarkowski in 1966. The Bechers believe in a kind of neutrality of photography that deletes all subjective traces. In many ways the pair’s work can be said to represent a photographic parallel to the writing degree zero of the nouveau roman, especially to Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novels from the late ’50s, in which a similar obsession with the material things around us renders objects not just visible but somehow eerily real. The fact that the entire oeuvre is fashioned by two people who can no longer distinguish who was responsible for what in the production process stresses the irrelevance of psychology to their work. It’s all about technique, not about the photographer’s expressive ambition or artistic approach. And the Bechers have achieved their desired effect: “I like the fact that these photos always draw attention to what they show,” remarks Thierry de Duve in an enthusiastic essay from the early ’90s, “never to themselves.” Hilla herself succinctly expresses the pair’s credo in a way that clearly echoes the whole Neue Sachlichkeit tradition, notably Albert Renger-Patzsch’s aspiration to let the objects speak for themselves: “Technique does not need to be interpreted. It interprets itself. You have to choose the right objects and focus on them precisely and they will tell their own stories.”

So do these photographed objects tell stories? Not really. After looking at a few hundred pictures of industrial constructions from the Ruhr area, I still know nothing about the social, economical, or historical significance of these environments. Somehow a photograph alone isn’t capable of that, as Brecht liked to point out. But more specifically, the Bechers’ way of presenting collections of variations on a theme does not really permit the individual object to “speak,” whatever that might mean. Rather, it is the pattern––the larger symmetry of the rectangle consisting of smaller units––that attracts the viewer’s attention. However, the experience varies in relation to various categories. For instance, I love the images of water towers and therefore linger for long enough in front of these photographs to let not only the group but also the individual object speak. These spherical structures share a very basic function, but the spatial solutions are more than idiosyncratic––some resemble UFOs, others planetariums or utopian domes––and comparing the different models is an amusing prospect. I find myself looking for my favorite crazy globe and ponder Bernd’s category of the Calvinist Baroque to capture some of the inexplicable variations among these buildings. On the other hand, most of the gas tanks and grain elevators are so utterly boring that the comparisons between individuals seem totally pointless. Here, seriality is the redeeming quality. The single object is depressing, but I can enjoy the repetitive quality of the group.

But have we misunderstood the nature of seriality in the Bechers’ oeuvre? Whether these photographs represented art wasn’t quite clear to the Bechers when the project began, and they defiantly declared that such a category was of little interest to them. Still, they were first appreciated in the context of Conceptual and Minimal art; Carl Andre, for example, wrote a seminal article on their work in these pages in 1972. One would thus think that the serial aspect of their work has to do with an early appreciation of the Minimal tradition, but the Bechers are eager to point out a different genealogy: “Our idea of showing the material has much more to do with the nineteenth century, with the encyclopedic approach used in botany or zoology, where plants of the same variety or animals of the same species are compared with one another on the individual pages of the lexicon.” This systematic documentation, as the Bechers point out, has a long pedigree.

Architectural documentation is only one aspect of the Bechers’ production. Totally devoid of the kind of optimism typical of most industrial photography, their endeavor is perhaps linked more closely to the interest in the obsolete artifacts that one associates with the Surrealists. Walter Benjamin wrote of the “revolutionary energies” the Surrealists detected in decrepit iron constructions, old factories, early photographs, and generally in things that were slowly vanishing into oblivion. No doubt, Benjamin’s own unfinished Passagen-Werk must be seen in this light. What is the significance of obsolescence in the work of the Bechers? They are hardly in search of the moments of “profane enlightenment” the Surrealist poets were after. They talk of a fight against time and of saving a world that is sinking into oblivion. To a certain extent this is true not only of the objects the Bechers depict but also of the methods of representation and of the medium itself. Indeed, a real grasp of the project’s significance must entail a consideration of the obsolescence of photography itself. With the rise of the digital image and the new possibilities of manipulation, the very notion of the archive as the honored appliance for systems of certainty and veracity is rapidly being renegotiated.

How is one to understand the Bechers in our postmedium condition? The question is a pertinent one, given that a quarter century ago the artists gave rise to a generation of photographers who successfully challenged the hegemony of painting in the German art world. “The success of the Düsseldorf photographers has to do with the precision with which we use our medium,” Thomas Ruff, one of the Bechers’ most prominent students, recently told me. Linking their approach not only to the Neue Sachlichkeit but also to Gerhard Richter’s critical exploration of painting, Ruff describes his approach to photography and that of his colleagues as a kind of investigation of the medium’s specific parameters: “We explored photography itself without passing beyond it.” In her programmatic 1999 essay “Reinventing the Medium,” Rosalind Krauss includes the Bechers in a group of Conceptual artists, such as Robert Smithson, Dan Graham, and Douglas Huebler, who used the photographic image as an element in a kind of hybrid practice also involving text. Photography’s structural dependence on a caption makes it heterogeneous from the outset, she argues, and the medium has therefore functioned as the major tool to conduct an inquiry into art without ever descending into specificity.

The Bechers are no Douglas Huebler, and a typical caption reads “Siegen-Eiserfeld, D 1972” or “Longwy-Senelle, F 1986.” That’s not an awful lot of text, but I suppose one might see the whole encyclopedic oeuvre as an example of photo-Conceptualism that is somehow beyond medium; yet the single image or group of images, all black-and-white and modest in size, looks a lot like classical photography to me. The Bechers teeter on some kind of critical edge, producing photographs in a media landscape that has long deemed their medium outmoded. Their students have proceeded from the modest dimension of their teachers’ work and have step-by-step begun to integrate techniques of printing and manipulation. There is no doubt that the Bechers have successfully bequeathed a “way of seeing,” as they phrased their approach in 1969, to a generation of artists who now enjoy world renown. The additional steps taken by these younger artists make it even more pertinent to define the unique position their teachers have occupied for almost half a century, a position that depends on seeing photography as a medium. That obsolescence is a productive force in their work seems clear. The basement of K21 speaks in the past tense: The industrial world the Bechers depict belongs to the past, as does the technique they employ. This was photography.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher: Typologies” travels to Haus der Kunst, Munich, June 11–Sept. 19; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, Sept.–Dec.; and Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, Feb. 2005–Apr. 2005.

Director of the Städelschule art academy in Frankfurt, contributing editor Daniel Birnbaum also heads the institution’s Portikus gallery.