New York

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Coal Bunker: Zeche Hannibal, Bochum, D. 1973, 2012, eight framed gelatin silver prints, overall 37 1/4 x 75 1/2".

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Coal Bunker: Zeche Hannibal, Bochum, D. 1973, 2012, eight framed gelatin silver prints, overall 37 1/4 x 75 1/2".

Bernd and Hilla Becher

Sonnabend Gallery

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Coal Bunker: Zeche Hannibal, Bochum, D. 1973, 2012, eight framed gelatin silver prints, overall 37 1/4 x 75 1/2".

The photographic enterprise of Bernd and Hilla Becher is by now as seemingly archetypal as the structures it documents. Recording, over several decades, a range of building “typologies” around the globe—from water towers to grain elevators—their images offer up a kind of anonymous, parallel history of the industrial edifice. The same inexorably milky sky frames each structure, and atmospheric indicators are so minimal as to compel concentration upon the objects themselves. This is not to say that the eye isn’t tempted by minutiae—the erratic arc of tire tracks, cement planters bearing shrubs, and parked cars that suggest a distinctly human absence.

Seized by the Bechers’ camera, each tight-lipped facade offers up only the occasional, elliptical detail—whether inbuilt to its architecture or conferred by the vicissitudes of its use. On an industrial structure from Wanne-Eickel, Germany, in an image from 1998, an emblem of crossed hammers attests to the labor once carried out therein; a structure in Calais, France, photographed in 1995, bears the graffito NON AUX L’, as if its author had been cut off midscrawl; a sign marked HALT in a picture from 1982 appears pinned to a Ruhrgebiet facade. Even without the haphazard appearance of that command to stop, the Bechers’ buildings are typically impassable, impassively typical: three-dimensional structures reduced to frontage and the flatness of photography.

To be sure, that detachment appears occasionally breached, however inconspicuously. One building shot in Jersey City in 1994, for example, reveals a beam or tube that rejoins its facade from outside the frame, seeming to soar, in fact, over the viewer’s head, and thus implying an extrapictorial space behind him, a phenomenological extension of the photograph’s domain. For the most part, however, the images sever their structure—like the coal bunkers, stoneworks, and industrial facades on view here—from a wider spatial (or social) context. The seeming rigidity of typological classification found, in this gripping exhibition installed by Hilla Becher herself, some striking deviations.

In a method used for the first time since 1981, a number of groupings include multiple photographs of the same building. This so-called Development format inflects the Becher method with a—literally—further dimension, that of time. Each grouping, over a few successive frames, reveals each structure from a number of angles; rounding out front and rear views are oblique perspectives, seemingly anathema to photographers’ relentless frontality. Of one coal bunker from Grube Eschweiler, Aachen, shot in 1965, for instance, we find six different views, each of which sets the structure’s sculptural elements—spindly, two-tiered legs; mock-medieval overhang—into relief, affording a simulated walk around it.

In the wake of the Development works, the Typology works seem comparatively, if ironically, diverse. Even within the parameters of their shared genericism, the facades reveal a striking variety of architectural pastiche and morphology, from Rundbogenstil windows to stepped gables to decorative brickwork. The Bechers’ Typology works group together buildings united by similar form, but often separated by several years. The coal bunkers featured in the Typology grids, for example, span wide-ranging geographies and, in some instances, whole decades. The Development prints, by contrast, are separated by a matter of hours or days.

The Bechers’ work is bound up with the systems-based experiments that marked a range of 1960s practices. Indeed, their photography is habitually referred to as “serial.” But if the plates are serial in their taking, their presentation is more aptly described as simultaneous rather than simply successive; as much as objects inserted into a predetermined schema, they evince a kind of synchronic collectivity—one that exceeds the calculus of their formal classification. The worldly reach of the Bechers’ camera, always in compelling tension with the narrow scope of its lens, produces something unique, even—or especially—in its unrelenting genericism (more, say, than Ruscha’s gas stations, for all their similarity). The installation succeeds in its mix of dogged discipline and understated variation—a dialectic repaid by an unhurried gaze. To that extent, as much as Sonnabend’s show marked a subtle departure in the couple’s work (now carried on by Hilla alone), it underscored an abiding, mesmerizing constancy.

Ara H. Merjian