Why go to a museum when you could visit a coal mine? For photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, the aesthetics of a drinking or water tower competed with anything a curator could put on a pedestal. The couple also admired the blast furnaces and lime kilns that kept heavy industry alive in mid-century Germany. Using a view camera on a tripod, the Bechers documented this native architecture as meticulously as Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite. For almost half a century, when heavy industry was declining in Western Europe, they tirelessly pursued this theme, calling the blast furnaces and water towers “anonymous sculpture”.
The success of their project was as clear as their commitment to it. Despite being traditionalists behind the camera, eschewing the convenience of 35mm film and the allure of color, the result was recognized almost immediately as groundbreaking, a judgment that has stood the test of time and will be borne out in a monumental new retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The dozens of works in the exhibition and accompanying monograph are most immediately striking for their visual consistency, the result of several decisions the couple made shortly after they began working together in 1959. Aside from their choice of subject and medium, they insisted on anonymously isolating each sculpture they chose, resulting in images that are remarkably neutral. The framing is mostly frontal or perspective. They avoided cloudy skies, afternoon shadows, and any sign of people. These choices allowed them to emphasize the sculptural qualities of devices that most viewers would not consider sculptural. By making their photography as anonymous as possible, they gave the anonymous architecture the dignity of a work of art encountered in a museum.
In 1959, however, not everything was settled. The decisions the Bechers made early in their careers left ample room for their project to develop. In fact, the qualities that turned out to be the most important arose almost by accident.
Recontextualizing vernacular architecture as anonymous sculpture was essentially Duchampian. Although Duchamp worked with physical objects, the framing of a blast furnace was no more radical as art than the display of a shovel or urinal. Some of the Bechers’ artistic contemporaries, such as Donald Judd, rose from neo-Dada nonsense by making industrial processes sculptural. Others, like Ed Ruscha, have innovated by theming popular culture. The Bechers went ahead by recognizing that their visual neutrality allowed them to compare and contrast the architecture documented in their amazing archive, creating what they termed ‘typologies’.
The deceptively easy transition from still images to grids of coal dumpers and lime kilns had amazing effects. As always, they approached it with the utmost rigor and seriousness, drawing on Linnaean taxonomy as well as on architectural history or industrial aesthetics. “The comparison of butterfly and beetle collections is by no means absurd,” they explained in the Deutsches Architekturblatt German construction newspaper 1967. “The principles of mutation and selection also apply to our objects.” This provided them with a powerful tool for analyzing architecture and also informed their selection process for the rest of their careers. “What we want is to make a more or less perfect chain of different shapes and forms,” Hilla claimed in 1970. The couple believed that this would help shed light on a tower or kiln’s essential functionality, its underlying purpose to bring different forms it took.
This obviously unaesthetic goal could conceivably have positioned the Bechers as world-class architectural historians or even as inventors of the next big thing in heavy industry. But their technical language is misleading and hides the romanticism that inspired them from the moment they began to perceive anonymous sculpture where others saw only industrial rot. “By viewing these photos simultaneously, you store knowledge of an ideal type,” they claimed. Your claim is convincing. It’s nothing short of the key to the miracle they never fail to perform in a work that never leaves you blinking.
Soon after the Bechers began showing their work, they drew comparisons to Conceptualism, which shared a quality of unsentimental rigor with their work. The parallel was problematic because the primary response to her art was always visual. While conceptualists tended to use monotony to awaken the mind by numbing the eye, the Bechers demanded neutrality to show what could not be seen with the eyes alone. Her work, however, was always small conceptual, sharing with the conceptualists an appeal to the incorporeal.
No greater recognition could have been bestowed upon the couple than a Golden Lion at the 1990 Venice Biennale. They were not recognized as photographers. The prize was awarded in the Sculpture category.
The pair’s sculpture was conceptual. As Western Europe’s industrial architecture was being demolished or falling into disrepair, the Bechers used photography to mold all the beauty of droplets and water towers into people’s minds, where they could no longer wreak environmental destruction.