Bernd & Hilla Becher’s first solo exhibition at Sprüth Magers, Berlin, features the iconic style and formal rigor of the Bechers’ oeuvre, showcasing several rarely seen individual works and groupings along with two typologies that allude to the cultural and social significance of the constructions the artists referred to as “anonymous sculptures.”
The show outlines the career of the German artist couple who, from the 1960s onwards, began challenging the perceived gap between documentary and fine-art photography. Developing a precise visual lexicon, they chronicled the architecture of heavy industry in a uniform manner.
On view are five groupings of works, each picturing a different structure. Photographed from both a frontal and a three-quarter perspective is Winding Tower, Fosse Noeux No. 13, Sains en Gohelle, F (1972).
Seen through the artists’ eyes, the industrial architecture become objects of anthropological observation that bear testament to regional socioeconomic developments. These seldom-seen groupings allow viewers to walk around their subjects – emphasizing the sculptural attributes of the buildings.
“These constructions develop without any regard for aesthetics and their shapes derive from calculation.” –Bernd & Hilla Becher
For over five decades, Bernd and Hilla Becher produced a remarkable oeuvre in the pursuit of a straightforward theme: variation within limits. Precision, fine detail and methodology mark the Bechers’ work. By systematically photographing commonplace industrial buildings across Europe and North America, they captured an architectural landscape in the process of disappearing.
Approaching the structures with scientific interest, the artists classified, compared and contrasted their subjects in varying groups and “typologies,” as they named their celebrated grids. A rare large-scale twenty-four part typology Coal Bunkers (1966–93) functions as an example of how a typology’s separate images work together with what the artists described as Klang, the “sound” or “rhythm” produced by the compositions and tonal values being in tune, each image finely calibrated to play in the orchestra of pictures.
With clarity and consistency, their compositions – which are photographed with tripod-mounted, large-format cameras and a vast range of lenses with varying focal lengths and filters – optically center their subjects and de-emphasize the surrounding landscape. Preferring few shadows, the Bechers optimized the light for each subject, arriving at the recognizable light skies that act as blank foils to the geometric forms.
A study of “basic forms” is presented in a row of individual structures, again creating a rhythmic comparison of varying architectural shapes.
Focused on technical precision and letting the object speak for itself whilst recording the world as it is, they developed a visual code, a grammar of sorts, which strikes the balance between an objective and restrained gaze that is at the same time immediately identifiable and unique, even somewhat personal.
“They are generally buildings where anonymity is accepted to be a the style. Their peculiarities originate not in spite of, but because of the lack of design.” –Bernd & Hilla Becher
Bernd and Hilla Becher have had a major influence on our understanding of photography as a medium with which to document and catalogue our surroundings. Although their subjects appear to be deserted, and many of them have since vanished, the Bechers avoided nostalgia by preferring to portray active sites, the work going on inside or underground. An idiosyncrasy in their varying shapes, the photographs offer a view of these industrial-era constructions as individuals with character, lending them a peculiarly anthropomorphic quality.
The sequence surveying cooling towers highlights the possible variations within a given form.
“We found these towers to be beautiful. Often, someone would spot a new one and say, ‘That’s a nice one!’” –Hilla Becher
The artists’ examination of the relationship between form and function has preserved the silent monuments of the biographies of generations of people whose lives were tied up in an arduous and gritty business. Anchoring the viewer in the present, the seminal works on display are a testament to the ways in which the Bechers have defined how we see and appreciate these sculptures that remain nameless but not faceless.