Bernd and Hilla Becher, photo giants of the Düsseldorf School, emerge from the shadows

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Bernd and Hilla Becher, the de facto founders of the Düsseldorf School of Photography in Germany, are giants in the history of 20th-century European photography Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth have an established presence, while the Bechers have been comparatively overlooked. That’s set to change this month when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opens Bernd & Hilla Becherthe first major US survey of the two, with around 200 of their works.

A perennial favorite at the Düsseldorf Art Academy during the school’s tumultuous post-war heyday, the Bechers made a name for themselves with so-called “typologies” — austere black-and-white photographs of industrial architecture, typically taken over several decades and then were precisely arranged in analytical and yet mysteriously elegant grids. The overall goal was to document ignored, even despised structures—including blast furnaces, cooling towers, gas tanks, and grain elevators—but the effect was to synthesize long-standing innovations in photography with more recent trends in fine art.

The images that make up the Bechers’ mature typologies are indeed hyper-refined works of black-and-white photography, reminiscent of the subtle monochromatic palette and compositional rigor of Walker Evans and Eugène Atget. But their unusual presentation also managed to transcend the genre of photography completely, sharing traits with minimalism, conceptual art and installation art. In 1990, the Bechers won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for sculpture, probably at the height of their artistic creativity.

The New York exhibition, which will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art later this year, presents a number of the couple’s cherished typologies, including Twisted Towers (1966-97), consisting of three sets of three photographs of gallows-like mineheads over Welsh coal mines and their massive, phantasmagorical depictions of blast furnaces, with three sets of ten taken between 1969 and 1993 in the United States, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Belgium .

The images’ discreet perfection belies the immense effort that went into each one, says Met curator Jeff Rosenheim. The pair wanted “neutral fields,” Rosenheim says, to emphasize the eerie shapes of the structures. This sent them on a quest for everything from perfect weather conditions—which, for the Bechers, means cloudy, with minimal direct sunlight—to permanent access to dangerous spots on industrial sites to accommodate their portrait-like frames of the structures themselves. The couple’s decades-long persistence in getting just the right shots under near-daring conditions is revealed on the show thanks to behind-the-scenes Polaroids and diary excerpts.

The exhibition gives a comprehensive overview of the mature work of the couple, which was created in close collaboration from 1970 until Bernd’s death in 2007 at the age of 75. (Hilla died in 2015 at the age of 81.) But “the show’s revelation,” Rosenheim says, will be examples of her earlier, separate work from the 1950s and early 1960s. Prior to their collaboration, Hilla was the more experienced photographer while Bernd was an inspired graphic designer. The exhibition includes largely unknown works such as Bernd’s mid-1950s, almost romantic sketches of Germany’s Eisernhardter Tiefbau mine in Eisern, south of his birthplace in Siegen, and Hilla’s clear, neo-Weimar advertising work, as in 1964 Study of a Steel Thread.

These early works offer a glimpse of what was to come, but some also represent a path not trodden, such as Bernd’s vivid watercolor sketch of the Eisernhardter mine – a sky-blue answer to the couple’s later dedication to concrete-grey hues.

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