Bernd & Hilla Becher @Met

JTF (just the facts): A retrospective exhibition, divided into 7 sections, on view in a series of 6 galleries on the second floor of the museum. The exhibit was organized by Jeff Rosenheim, and will travel later this year to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The following works are included in the exhibition:

00 Basic Forms

  • 10 gelatin silver prints, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1983, 1989, 1997, 2000

01 Framework Houses

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963
  • 2 sets of 15 gelatin silver prints, 1959-1972, 1961-1978
  • 1 diptych of gelatin silver prints, 1960-1972
  • 1 set of 8 gelatin silver prints, 1971
  • (in vitrine) 1 photobook, 1977, 5 maquette pages (sets of 3, 4, or 8 prints), c1977

02 Early Work

Works by Bernd Becher

  • 2 lithographs, 1952, 1854
  • 1 ink on paper, c1954
  • 1 charcoal and graphite on paper, c1954
  • 1 graphite and watercolor on paper, 1955-1956
  • 2 graphite on paper, 1955-56
  • (in vitrine) 1 set of 6 collages of gelatin silver prints on mounts, 1957
  • 1 collage of gelatin silver prints with graphite, 1964 or later

Works by Hilla Becher

  • 9 gelatin silver prints, 1964, 1965
  • (in vitrine) 4 gelatin silver prints, 1961; 2 book plates by Ernst Haeckel, 1904

Works by Bernd & Hilla Becher

  • 3 gelatin silver prints, 1963, 1967
  • 1 set of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1969
  • (in vitrine) 4 gelatin silver prints (snapshots of Bechers at work), 1978-1985; 3 crossword puzzles, 1950s/early 1960s, 1 journal, 1972-1984, 1 folder of notes, 1987
  • 1 set of 18 gelatin silver prints, 1965-1992
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1972
  • (in vitrine) 45 instant dye diffusion transfer prints (Polaroid) 1970s-2010s; 45 note cards with ink and graphite drawings
  • 1 set of 10 offset lithographs (exhibition posters), 1968-2005
  • 2 sets of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1967
  • 1 digital video from 16mm color film (made by Max Becher), 1987, 7 minutes 14 seconds

03 Industrial Landscapes

  • 8 gelatin silver prints, 1962, 1966, 1971, 1073, 1979, 1980, 1988, 1999

04 Zeche Concordia

  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1967
  • 6 sets of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1967-1970, 1968
  • 5 sets of 4 gelatin silver prints, 1967, 1967-1970, 1968
  • 2 sets of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1967
  • 2 sets of 3 gelatin silver prints, 1967, 1969

05 Art and Evolution

  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1963-1994
  • 1 gelatin silver print, 1966
  • 3 sets of 9 gelatin silver prints mounted together, 1961-1972, 1972, 1976
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints mounted together, 1972
  • 1 diptych of gelatin silver prints, 1973
  • 1 set of 2 gelatin silver prints, 1974
  • 1 set of 8 gelatin silver prints, 1974
  • 1 set of 4 gelatin silver prints, 1974
  • 1 set of 16 gelatin silver prints, 1963-1980
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints mounted together, 1966-71
  • 1 photobook, 1970, with video page through
  • (in vitrine) 1 magazine, 1972; 1 portfolio of 10 gelatin silver prints in exhibition box, 1968
  • (in vitrine) 2 zine spreads, 1969
  • Sol LeWitt: 1 aluminum and enamel paint, 1974
  • Carl Andre: 1 tin sculpture (64 squares), 1976

06 Typologies

  • 4 sets of 15 gelatin silver prints, 1978-1979, 1988-2001, 1965-1992, 1982-2002
  • 3 sets of 9 gelatin silver prints, 1967-1988, 1966-1997, 1974-1978
  • 1 set of 6 gelatin silver prints, 1967-1984
  • 2 sets of 12 gelatin silver prints, 1983-1993, 1978-2000
  • 1 set of 24 gelatin silver prints, 1966-1993
  • 1 set of 30 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1993
  • (in vitrine) 9 photobooks, n.d.

(Installation shots below.)

In conjunction with the exhibition, a catalog has been published by the museum (here). Hardcover (9 3/8 x 10 3/4 inches), 282 pages, with 217 illustrations. Includes essays by Rosenheim, Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Virginia Heckert, and Lucy Sante, and a conversation with Max Becher. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: It’s often the case that the work of certain innovative artists isn’t entirely appreciated or even understood when it first arrives on the scene, and that it can take years for the significance of their art to be appropriately noticed and valued. A resonant example of this dynamic begins with a German husband and wife photographic team who drove around in a modest Volkswagen bus filled with technical equipment and made images of aging industrial infrastructure, mostly around Europe, starting in the ’60s and ’70s. Their resulting black-and-white photographs were often called dry, aloof, and styleless, to the point of being either simply straightforward or downright boring. But it’s now clear that the brilliance of these two artists undeniably and permanently altered the trajectory of 20th century photography, so it seems that something didn’t quite add up, at least initially.

From the time that they started working together in the late 1950s, when they were both studying at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Bernd and Hilla Becher were outliers of sorts. The Bechers had specific ideas about what they wanted to photograph, and how they wanted to photograph it, and these ideas didn’t line up with anything else that was being done at the time. So they set out in their van and got to work, and spent the next five decades or so executing their systematic plan with little in the way of deviation.

This exhilarating retrospective, the first for the pair in the United States since 1974, will hopefully dispel some of the stubborn confusion around the Bechers and their art, and convert at least a few of their inattentive naysayers into admirers. It’s a very carefully crafted show, one that in a measured, step-by-step manner explains what the Bechers were doing with their industrial photographs, demonstrates how their photographic eye was altogether revolutionary, and then goes on to explore how they evolved the presentation of their work over time to investigate a range of richly complex ideas. All of this takes place within the framework of pictures of water towers, gas tanks, lime kilns, blast furnaces, and other even more arcane industrial structures, the specificity of the subject matter ultimately giving way to the subtle inventiveness of the unique artistic perspective being applied.

The show begins with an introduction of sorts, in the hallway, as seen on the outside walls of the galleries. In a series of ten photographs, we are brought into the exacting visual world of the Bechers. Each image is a frontal view of a particular type of industrial building, creating a one-of-each parade that quickly teaches us about how the Bechers see. Regardless of whether the subject was a cooling tower or a coal bunker, the approach was generally the same – the image was composed so that the structure largely fills the frame (regardless of its actual size, thereby harmonizing the sense of scale); the building was seen frontally and squared off, to highlight its particular forms and architectural details; the surrounding context was reduced, to the extent possible (in these individual images); the sky was often grey or overcast, to minimize the play of light and shadow and to balance the tonalities; the vantage point was typically ground level or slightly elevated (on a tall tripod); and the large format view camera exposures were precise and sharp, to capture the details of the structure with rigorous fidelity and legibility.

In a very real sense, these photographs were more than ordinary documentation – they were systematic portraits (of a kind), taken with a uniform approach steeped in attention and respect. And this is where we can get confused about what is happening aesthetically – at first glance, it can feel like the Bechers are removing any trace of their own style, becoming rigidly deadpan and mechanical, which can feel cold and off-putting to some. But what’s actually occurring is the creation of a strict visual grammar, a consistent way of seeing that when applied across hundreds and hundreds of structures allows for closely observing and celebrating the individuality of each one. What’s fascinating is that the Bechers’ so-called “absence of authorship” is instantly recognizable, like a visual signature (or its reverse?) applied to each subject.

This rigorous kind of aesthetic thinking has plenty of precedents in 20th century German photography, and the Bechers were keenly aware of that history. Their unadorned visual language is similar in concept to the ones August Sander applied to his portraits of everyday people, Karl Blossfeldt applied to plant specimens, and Albert Renger-Patzsch applied to a range of subjects. Modernists all over the world would soon pick up and advance this sense of crisp photographic clarity, but the Germans had turned precise objectivity into its own style, which the Bechers then adapted to their own interests and circumstances. But their dispassionately neutral mindset turns out to have been much more than a German hand me down; its formal uniformity then unlocked the possibilities of comparison, classification, and pattern matching within their growing archive of imagery, ultimately leading them to the gridded “typologies” that transformed the world of photography.

After this succinct visual primer, the next section of the show uses a single subject matter type – the traditional German black-and-white framework house – as a platform for digging deeper into how the Bechers were applying their particular brand of visual rigor. In this single room, we can watch as the Bechers try out a range of different visual strategies. Of course, they make strictly frontal single images of the houses (like the ones from the introduction section), where the black wooden structure stands out against the whitewashing, highlighting both the crisp geometric patterns and the functional placement of the supports. These images are then shown as single specimens, and placed in tight grids that allow for easy comparison of like buildings. The Bechers also developed a one-and-nine display configuration, where a single large image is placed with a grid of nine smaller ones in a tight diptych, creating a sense of theme and variation, or archetype and typical relatives. Still other images find the Bechers experimenting with a technique they called abwicklungen or “unwinding”, where they would systematically circle a building, taking successive pictures of its four sides and its four corners. And then the Bechers step back and make wider images of the buildings as situated in the landscape, with clusters of framework houses gathered together in villages. The diversity of these approaches points to an artist pair who were methodical and patient, researching their subjects and meticulously documenting each building, sometimes using multiple strategies to ensure that its best qualities were captured. This room literally shows us framework houses, but what it’s teaching us is that the Bechers didn’t just think in one rut, but instead developed a broad range of techniques to alternately tease out details, patterns, commonalities, and wider context – what matters here are their early and rich development of artistic process, and the seeds of their larger thinking about the aggregation of robust visual archives.

The next two sections of the show fill in the Bechers’ artistic and aesthetic backstory more fully. Early works, before the pair started working together artistically, offer hints of Bernd’s passion for the details of industrial architecture and Hilla’s interest in graphic formality and scientific ordering. These then build into more examples of seeing from different angles, of testing alternate subjects (like electrical towers), and of circling single structures. An engaging vitrine shows how they captured visual notes of buildings to go back and visit later, via quick Polaroid snapshots, and when a camera wasn’t handy, simple drawings on notecards; other journals and logbooks (in another vitrine) expand on this process of discovery, research, and ultimately carefully planned revisiting. And a quietly charming video made by the Bechers’ son Max (also a photographer) follows along as they travel in the van, load and unload gear into a motel room, settle in at a particular spot, choose their vantage point, and convince the owner to cut down some foreground trees to make the composition cleaner (with Bernd eventually up in the tree with a handsaw and Hilla dragging away the cuttings). Another nearby group of wider landscapes fills out the early tool kit, the oversized prints offering more complete views of the heterogeneous complexity of various industrial sites and their wider setting in the land.

The Bechers’ deep commitment to understanding and then documenting the entirety of a massive industrial site comes through strongly in a room filled with photographs taken at the Concordia Mine, in the village of Oberhausen not far from their home studio. The mine was on the verge of closing in 1967 when the Bechers first starting making pictures there, and after getting to know the managers of the facility, they ultimately returned over the period of the next three years, working their way around the complete site. Now armed with the knowledge (from the previous galleries) of the various compositional techniques the Bechers were using, the Concordia pictures have the feel of artists really flexing their muscles. All of the approaches we’ve seen earlier were used in documenting the mine, from wide scene-setting landscapes and stepped back views of sections of buildings in relation to one another (often linked by railways or conveyors), to circling and frontal studies of single specimen buildings, the whole project constructed with an eye for how the different functional buildings were connected to each other. Most of the works in this room are arranged in small grids, providing multiple perspectives on structures and their immediate surroundings, and encouraging us to connect the relevant buildings together into a chain of mining and processing activity, with the form and function of each structure clearly communicated. The accompanying wall text ties these various images back to the conceptual idea of a visual grammar, with “words”, “sentences”, and “paragraphs” coming together in the larger “essay”; while this might seem abstract, when seen in the form of these precisely controlled artworks, it’s easy to see how the Bechers were methodically developing the visual syntax to tell a more complicated, three dimensional photographic story about facilities like this one.

Along the way, as the Bechers continued to make their meticulous photographs, two interesting things started to happen. The first is that they began to amass a larger and larger archive of works. In a sense, this wasn’t entirely unexpected, as it was Bechers’ intentional plan to document as many of these aging and disappearing structures as they could. But as the pictures piled up, categories started to emerge, with dozens of images of the same functional kind of structure (like water towers or gas tanks), taken not only in Germany, but later across Europe and even in the United States. This then allowed them to build increasingly large gatherings of like imagery they called “typologies”, where gridded comparisons of form could be more readily made, almost like the standardized classification of scientific specimens.

The second and perhaps more unforseen development was that the Bechers and their works were embraced by some of the Conceptual and Minimalist artists of the time, like Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre, who resonated with their strict modular thinking and idea-centric approach to art-making. This crossover, in a sense away from the traditional photography establishment, was also seen in their first book Anonyme Skulpturen (or “Anonymous Sculpture”), where their pictures were rooted in clarity of form, resetting mechanized industry in the realm of sculpture. (In a similarly unexpected turn, the Bechers later won an award at the 1990 Venice Biennale, in the sculpture category.) One of the later rooms of the exhibition investigates these connections, with images now more overtly selected for their formal qualities and abstract sculptural lines, and typologies that had a direct affinity with LeWitt’s cubes and Andre’s flat geometries, anchored by a glorious water tower typology of sixteen different forms.

The final spaciously installed room of the show gives the Bechers’ largest typologies plenty of room to breathe, with as many as 30 prints grouped together in their now-signature grids. With a nod to the original introductory section, we return once again to blast furnaces, coal bunkers, winding towers, grain elevators, gas tanks, and rickety coal tipples in quick succession, but now with multiple examples collected together, allowing us to compare different styles and functional approaches – and for New Yorkers, the Bechers’ typology of wooden water tanks (found on the rooftops of city buildings) is wondrously local and recognizable. Seeing so many different typologies gathered in one room makes it clear just how intricate the process of constructing the typologies was – finding the right “rhythm” in the ordering of the images, or the “harmony” between the adjacent pictures can’t have been achieved without plenty of tinkering. The typologies are more than just random juxtapositions, they are carefully crafted arrangements, where the viewer’s eye is encouraged to move through associations, repetitions, and linear twists and turns; the gas tank typology is perhaps the best example of this intentional design, with the filling and unfilling of various tanks creating a heartbeat-like up and down motion within the grid. This exhibition definitely builds to a triumphant crescendo, with early ideas, experiments, and methodologies slowly evolving toward the more muscular wall-filling typologies in this final gallery, and once we’ve seen the powerhouse 30-piece grid, there really isn’t anything more to say.

Seeing a sublimely smart retrospective like this one inevitably leads to questions of artistic legacy, and in the case of the Bechers, the ripples of their influence continue to reach far and wide. Their intertwined innovations of the rigorously-crafted archive and the typology have been adopted by countless artists, not only in photography, and the intellectual and conceptual precision with which they engaged with their art and followed their passion for industrial architecture have set a standard for consistency and persistence that few have matched. And as teachers, the Bechers imparted these lessons to multiple generations of contemporary German photographers, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, and many, many other notable names across two decades of leading the photography program at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. As the years pass, it’s clear that their lasting impact has been astonishingly profound.

But for me, as a single individual viewer wandering through a lifetime of the Bechers many achievements, what I mostly felt in these rooms was a kind of understated joy. Not only is their work not dry or deadpan, it is so intensely engaged, attentive, and appreciative that it is nearly impossible not to be drawn along into their almost fanatical interests. The Bechers acted as dutiful witnesses, faithfully documenting an important slice of our rapidly disappearing human history, and they performed that role with such care and aesthetic sensitivity that they have transformed even the dustiest and dreariest of endangered buildings into something we might dare to call beautiful. Their work challenges us to bring our most observant selves to their visual discoveries, overtly reteaching us how to look with patience and intention. If you let them in, and willingly try to see the world through their eyes, the Bechers will recalibrate your brain, and this elegant retrospective is proof positive of the power of that magic.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum exhibition, there are of course no posted prices. Bernd and Hilla Becher are represented by Sonnabend Gallery in New York (here), Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco (here), and others. The Bechers’ work is consistently available in the secondary markets, including both single images and larger typologies, with prices ranging from roughly $3000 to $400000 (a record set in 2019).

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Read more about: Bernd and Hilla Becher, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Metropolitan Museum of Art

One comment

  1. Chris /

    Nice to read such a well-rounded and insightful article. I first encountered the Bechers (late 80’s) before I had any interest in photography and responded to their work positively. My interest in abstract painting at that time made me feel photography was hopelessly literal. While that’s changed, my interest in the Bechers has only grown stronger over the years. I saw a show in Amsterdam in 2002 and it had a room that I found challenging. It was all garage fronts laid out in a row around the entire room. It took some work but eventually the slight variations mad me feel like I was being given a lesson in seeing. It felt epiphanic. But it made me realize the depth by which they engage not just photography, history, or industrial culture but the act of viewing itself. When they talked about music, it made sense to me…

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