Vernacular industrial architecture was the sole subject of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work for close to fifty years. Their vast photographic inventory ranges geographically from Western Europe to North America and across an enormous array of building types, many verging on obsolescence—mine shafts, lime kilns, silos, cooling towers, blast furnaces, tipples, and gasometers. Through their physical presence, these building types record the evolution of industrialization that, in Western society during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, ran parallel to the trajectory of cultural modernism. The Bechers preferred to install groups of photographs in the format of a grid. Evenly spaced rectangular grids of prints, framed either individually or in groups, invite comparisons among structures that might at first appear similar, even uniform, but that quickly register as endlessly different in their details. In 1989, while continuing to
work with the grid format, the Bechers also began to print larger images
and present them in rows along the wall, like these at Dia:Beacon.
The Bechers typically centered the structures frontally in the frame, so they would stand out from their context without being isolated from it. This framing restricts anecdotal or expressive information, emphasizing the studious mood of each image. To further this end, the artists worked only under slightly overcast skies and in the early mornings of spring and fall, when an even, diffuse light allows images of maximum clarity.
Photographers have examined industry for a wide range of purposes, both aesthetic and commercial, but the Bechers’ work constitutes an alternative archive, probing the subject from other perspectives. In many ways, they shared the canonical concerns of documentary photographers, such as legibility: “The photographs should always show all the details and the textures of the materials,” they said, adding that they refused to “depict anything in an untrue fashion.” But their images also share concerns that have proven vital for the developments of a conceptual approach to image making and documentation.
Key aspects include the serialization of photographic practice, now devoid of gesturality; the obedience to a self-imposed formal canon; and the systematic use of one point of view that, confronted with a catalogue of analogous objects, attains a sort of abstraction. The disciplined ethic with which this dedicated German couple defined, then refined, their project of recording for posterity the increasingly neglected icons of the industrial era—whose dereliction they intuited—has yielded not just an archive but a vision.