Bernd and Hilla Becher @Sonnabend

JTF (just the facts): A total of 28 black and white photographic typologies, individually framed in white and matted, and hung against white walls in the entry gallery, the two side rooms in the front, and two of the rooms in the rear. All of the works are made up of gelatin silver prints, in groups of 2 to 15 prints, made between 1963 and 1998 and printed recently. The combinations in the typologies are never repeated, so they are all unique works. (Installation shots at right.)

The works on view come from three different subject matter series, with a mix of traditional typologies (one image per location) and other works which combine multiple perspectives of a single structure or site. For each series, the number of typologies, their makeup (number of prints), and the overall dimensions are provided below:

Industrial Facades:

6 nine image typologies, each sized 56×68

Coal Bunkers:

1 two image typology, sized 37×22

2 four image typologies, each sized 38×46 (or reverse)

3 six image typologies, each sized 37×55

2 eight image typologies, each sized 38×76

2 nine image typologies, each sized 68×55

Stone Works:

1 two image typology, sized 22×41

5 three image typologies, each sized 22×64 or 38×42

5 four image typologies, each sized 38×46 (or reverse)

1 fifteen image typology, sized 68×94

Comments/Context: What struck me most about the new show of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher at Sonnabend is something I really should have realized a very long time ago. Drag your hand across the volumes of their work on our library shelves and the idea starts to take hold: gas tanks, water towers, blast furnaces, framework houses, industrial facades, coal mine tipples, mineheads, and even a few industrial landscapes. To gather enough pictures to make their signature typologies, to find half a dozen or a dozen structures which exhibit the same underlying architectural forms so they can be grouped together for comparison, the sheer vastness of their artistic effort has to have been truly staggering. Across forty years and countless miles, they built up a vernacular archive like no other. And here we have a show of coal bunkers and stone works (with their own architectural idiosyncrasies), plus some more industrial facades, evidence that the archive was even bigger than we had assumed.

The large typologies of industrial facades in the entry gallery will feel the most familiar to Becher-philes. They use boxy factories and warehouses to highlight stepped roof lines in brick, curved barrel roofs, arched windows, rectangular boxes with repeating window patterns, peaked roofs with vertical striping, and buildings decorated with external pipes running horizontally. The theme and variation style of the typology structure focuses crisp attention on these overlooked details.

While traditional typologies have also been employed for the coal bunkers and stoneworks, with their boxy squared off forms, train tracks running underneath, angled chutes/conveyors, and cylindrical holding areas, the Bechers also used an organizational form called the “development” that instead collects multiple views of the same structure into one stand alone architectural portrait. Some of the images are frontal (on each side) while others use angled perspectives. The effect is almost like a stop motion circular panorama, where the viewer moves around the site to see the building from every vantage point. These works are not collections of like objects, but an in-depth examination of one place. The Bechers’ rigid conceptual approach still comes through, but the intimate attention being paid somehow seems more intense. Trapezoidal shapes, arched concrete, graduated angled roof lines, wood siding in vertical and horizontal directions, these all seem more like personality traits of an individual rather than commonalities of a group. When hung together in a room, these “developments” tell a very different story about the evolution of functional motifs than the typologies; they provide a closer investigation of both similarities to and deviations from a common form, and they seem to imply both cross pollination of architectural ideas as well as elemental, universal styles that evolve strictly from local usage.

So for those of you who may think you have already seen everything the Bechers had to offer, this show brings together both lesser known subject matter and an unexpected conceptual twist on their signature typology. As always, the work is exquisitely crafted and meticulously considered; what I appreciated here was the sense of smart freshness that seemed to reanimate their much celebrated and highly influential photographic approach.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows, and have stayed consistent (without price escalation) over the past few years. The works are priced based on the number of prints in the typology. As such:

2 image typologies: $26000

3 image typologies: $39000

4 image typologies: $52000

6 image typologies: $78000

8 image typologies: $104000

9 image typologies: $117000

15 image typologies: $195000

The Bechers’ work is now consistently available at auction, in every season and every geography. Prices for single images have ranged from roughly $3000 to $35000 in recent years; typologies have ranged between roughly $25000 to $180000 during that same time.

Read more about: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Sonnabend Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete McGovern /

    It's hard to tell from the gallery shots but something I've wondered about is that in recent years the final print quality seems to have suddenly become exquisite whereas a decade ago they were flat and lifeless. I think this could be a value-system change. Just when you thought you'd long ago absorbed all the meaming the work had to offer suddenly the immense presence of those large format exposures when printed big and beautiful is something astonishing to behold.

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