Magazine article Artforum International

Bernd and Hilla Becher: K21-Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Magazine article Artforum International

Bernd and Hilla Becher: K21-Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Dusseldorf

Article excerpt

I've seen Bernd and Hilla Becher's black-and-white photographs of industrial structures innumerable times, but never quite like this: picture after picture, nearly 650 in all, showing buildings--water towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, winding towers, gravel plants, gas tanks, industrial facades, cooling towers. A single object per image, and a single category exemplified in a group of nine, twelve, or fifteen photographs installed in a strict rectangle. How gray and monotonous. How totally repetitive and devoid of surprises. And yet, as a whole, the exhibition, which spans the Bechers' output from 1961 to 2002 and is organized by K21 director Armin Zweite, is as grandiose and mesmerizing as a piece of serial music--cold and detached but still exuding a strange melancholy. The architectural world the Bechers have pictured is rapidly fading away. Most of the anonymous creations depicted are gone forever. Some forty-five years ago, when the young German couple--he an art student, she a professional photographer--started to produce and exhibit their images, the fundamental significance of the endeavor was already clear to them: "Since these structures were disappearing more and more, we could imagine that conserving these things photographically would someday be of general interest."

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The Bechers have been drawn primarily to the classic industrial landscapes of Germany, France, Belgium, England, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the US. After the collapse of Communism and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, their work began to incorporate eastern Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe. The search for new variations of blast furnaces, grain elevators, and limekilns continues. Asked two years ago by critic Ulf Erdmann Ziegler whether they would hop a plane to Korea if they heard about an industrial edifice they had yet to photograph, Hilla answered, "I would!" to which Bernd rejoindered, "Hilla was in Siberia.... There weren't any variations there that would contribute a great deal to the whole, let's say, on the subject of blast furnaces. We already have enough of them." So it may be that the Bechers' mapping project is reaching an end, and the encyclopedia of a past universe of anonymous architecture, seemingly functional but full of visual enigmas, is coming to a conclusion--thus making the moment of the archive's completion coincide with a moment that marks the photographic medium's most severe transformation.

"The photographer's vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand," wrote John Szarkowski in 1966. The Bechers believe in a kind of neutrality of photography that deletes all subjective traces. In many ways the pair's work can be said to represent a photographic parallel to the writing degree zero of the nouveau roman, especially to Alain Robbe-Grillet's novels from the late '50s, in which a similar obsession with the material things around us renders objects not just visible but somehow eerily real. The fact that the entire oeuvre is fashioned by two people who can no longer distinguish who was responsible for what in the production process stresses the irrelevance of psychology to their work. It's all about technique, not about the photographer's expressive ambition or artistic approach. And the Bechers have achieved their desired effect: "I like the fact that these photos always draw attention to what they show," remarks Thierry de Duve in an enthusiastic essay from the early '90s, "never to themselves." Hilla herself succinctly expresses the pair's credo in a way that clearly echoes the whole Neue Sachlichkeit tradition, notably Albert Renger-Patzsch's aspiration to let the objects speak for themselves: "Technique does not need to be interpreted. It interprets itself. You have to choose the right objects and focus on them precisely and they will tell their own stories."

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So do these photographed objects tell stories? …

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