At the Met, the first posthumous exhibition of Bernd and Hilla Bechers’ photography presents their influential work

Bernd & Hilla Becher
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 5th Ave
New York, NY 10028
Open until November 6, 2022

As Reyner Banham recounted in A concrete Atlantis (his last book, and that prompted by his chair at SUNY Buffalo from 1976 to 1980), images of factories and grain elevators in the American Midwest proliferated in trade publications that reached architects in Europe who were enthused by their “primitivism”, perhaps like the way European artists viewed African art. Some were also collected by Alma Mahler, who sent them back to her lover (and future husband) Walter Gropius, who published them with his own writings. In 1923, Le Corbusier included some of these same shots in Towards architecturecelebrating silos and factories as “gorgeous FIRST FRUITS new age.” The following year, Erich Mendelsohn saw and drew the grain elevators in Buffalo, New York. “Everything else up until now seemed like it was shaped by acting for my silo dreams,” he wrote to his wife, Louise. “Everything else was just the beginning.”

The photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, currently exhibited at the Met, constitute another moment of awakening. Bernd died in 2007 and Hilla in 2015, so this exhibition marks the first posthumous retrospective of their practice. Working first individually, then together for decades, the couple built up an archive of photographs documenting abandoned industrial sites in Western Europe and the United States. The power of their black-and-white images comes from their precision: shot under an overcast sky, they are evenly lit so that every flash is visible, not lost in shadows or blown out by sunlight. Expertly imaged, photos taken decades apart can presumably be grouped into groups they call “typologies.”

Installation view of Bernd & Hilla Becher, on view from July 15 to November 6, 2022 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen/Courtesy The Met)

The Met show, which chronicles the full career of the Bechers from the mid-1960s to the early 2000s, was organized by museum curator Jeff L. Rosenheim with the assistance of Virginia McBride and in close consultation with Max Becher, the artists’ son, and Gabriele. Conrath-Scholl, director of the Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, Germany, which holds the artists’ archives. The presentation rewards close inspection.

After an introductory staging of the “basic forms” (gravel pit, lime kiln, gas tank, coal bunker, etc.), the exhibition begins with the Bechers’ project of the late 1960s to document the houses working-class in South Westphalia Germany. Even then, the couple had found their grid grouping presentation vanity; in some sets, the camera pans around the house as if it were a computer model.

installation view of a photography exhibition
Installation view of Bernd & Hilla Becher, on view from July 15 to November 6, 2022 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen/Courtesy The Met)

A third room dedicated to early individual works made between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s is revealing, as it documents how the artists brought their own experience to the collaborative project: Bernd as a visual artist long interested by the factories, and Hilla as a skilled photographer exploring the abstractions of the machine. The staging establishes their awareness of precedents such as Linnaean taxonomy and Ernst Haeckel’s illustrations and highlights the graphic universe of the posters announcing the first shows. (Bernd and Hilla worked at the same Düsseldorf advertising agency in the 1950s.) As well as being selective about when to shoot, the pair also manipulated their surroundings to create their desired foregrounds: a video from 1987 by Max shows them clearing brush at the base. from a grain elevator in Ohio to improve their shooting.

After two rooms that focus on industrial landscapes in general and the Zeche Concordia mine in particular, the next room shows the link between the Bechers and conceptual art through the staging of works by Sol LeWitt and Carl Andre at the middle of the gallery, surrounded by some of the Bechers. ‘ the biggest hits. Artists of the 1960s were interested in architecture and anonymity. Perhaps the seeds of this interest were sown in part by the influential influence of Bernard Rudofsky Architecture without architects show, installed at MoMA in 1964; a few years later, the Bechers published their groundbreaking book, Anonymous sculpture. The mix of ideas – advanced by artists like Dan Graham, Robert Smithson, Andre, LeWitt and others – linked geological form to minimal art, while the Bechers captured the industrial processes that produced the materials of modernity .

B&W photography of different industrial structures
Comparative juxtaposition, nine objects, each with a different functionn, 1961–1972. (Purchase, Anonymous donations, by exchange, Gift of the Daniel and Estrellita Brodsky Family Foundation, and David Hunter McAlpin Fund, by exchange, 2022 (2022.165) © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher)

The last room of typologies is hung in a larger gallery with white walls. The couple’s popularity stems in part from their constant bookmaking, so several of their releases sit here. If viewers weren’t convinced before, this congregation clearly establishes the couple’s mastery. However, a bit of the machismo of the time persists: of the ten photographers featured in 1975 by William Jenkins New topographies show, Hilla was the only woman.

In the last room of the exhibition, at least one image comes from Buffalo: a grain elevator (now demolished) on which is inscribed HO OATS. The Bechers took the photo in 1982, after Banham left SUNY Buffalo but before the publication of A concrete Atlantis in 1986. Two years later, Roger Conover, then an editor at the MIT Press, invited Banham to write the foreword to the Bechers. Water towers, which introduced their work to American readers; Banham died that year, but his scholarship, including A concrete Atlantishad an impact on the Bechers.

The duo considered their documentation to be for engineers. Although viewers are unlikely to be familiar with the chemical processes that, when operational, these structures enabled, they will likely be impressed with the geometries of the craft. We do not see the efficient logic of engineering, but the “aesthetics of science,” a type of gaze that had a pervasive influence on 20th century architecture. (The books of György Kepes are another example of this view.) In their sensitivity to combinations of forms—and in the curators’ selection and arrangement of images—the Bechers saw themselves as sculptors and managed their critical reception with enough skill that when they won the Golden Lion at the 1990 Venice Biennale, it was for sculpture.

B&W photo of different water towers
Water towers, 1967–80. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Warner Communications Inc. Purchase Fund, 1980 (1980.1074a–p) © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher)
B&W view of a huge industrial building
Zeche Hannover, Bochum-Hordel, Ruhr Area, Germany1973. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2011 (2011.67) © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher)

The influence of the Bechers can be seen in the creation of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, due to Bernd’s decades of teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, a sensibility later advanced by Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Demand, among others; this lineage is not explained in the exhibition, but it is explored in the accompanying catalogue.

While the Bechers’ work changed photography, it also changed architecture. The sensibilities of typological analysis, frontal composition, and “authorless” simplicity can be seen in the way architecture is created today. In Daily epicsarchitect and writer Jesús Vassallo proposed that “the Bechers’ lifelong trajectory reflects the process by which European architects of the time confronted their rapidly changing environment” and linked their work to that of Aldo Rossi , who began to explore the architectural type in the early 1960s. In 1993, years after a similar line was thrown in David Byrne True storiesRossi, writing an introduction to a grain elevator photography book by Lisa Mahar (who was then working in her office), thought that grain elevators looked like “the cathedrals of our time.” During this century, architectural influence came to Philipp Schaerer Pictures series, in which he constructed fictional elevations from digital archives of materially rich images. (Texts included with its publication by Standpunkte Books, edited by Reto Geiser, made this connection.) Recently, inspiration can be seen in the way contemporary architecture is documented and even in DALL’s nine-square results -E, an AI image, or the surrealist assemblages of Midjourney, which generate new forms of anonymous architecture.

What the Bechers’ images lack are, of course, the people. Their abstract ruin testifies to the global migration of industry; many of their subjects were torn down soon after they had their portraits taken, imbuing them with an elegiac quality. The context established a post-industrial landscape in which, decades later, a new flavor of conservatism would bubble up like oil. The societal neglect that followed the Bechers’ denunciations—that palpable sense of “being abandoned” known to anyone living in the Rust Belt or southern Westphalia—would prove to be a powerful psychological force that found in politics an outlet for expression. The sobriety of these images invites an encounter with the inevitable entropy of our material constructions. We should not accept them with complacency. On the contrary, their funereal calm paves the way for how we deal with the ecological calamities of today.

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