Identify what you consider to be the legacy of the artist Bernd and Hilla Becher for the importance of the photographic image.
‘The modern photographer is the architect’s greatest publicist’; that is, if one considers architectural photography a dumb copying device, and a pure record that informs the onlooker only of the building and its functionality. However banal a series of photographs depicting only water towers may seem, Bernd and Hilla Becher dedicated much attention to photographing such icons of post-war Germany and so created a historical document. In this way, the Bechers’ living legacy is ‘a narrative of socio-historic reality based on photography’s potential to retain some indexical trace of its subject’, but as mentioned by Mack, the Bechers are amongst those photographers who are also ‘involved in some level of construction or fabrication, distinct from the realist and objective position which is usually attributed to [photography]’. Their photography and teachings represent a time when photography was winning serious consideration by the European art scene and so are undeniably important and influential, but perhaps the most pointed question to ask of their work is the exact nature of its influence on other artists, on the nature of the photographic image, and on the landscape of Germany of which the mine shafts and silos they photographed were a vital part.
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Just as an historic text is the subject of the author’s interpretation of the reality of the times, a photograph is the product of the photographer’s choice and manipulation of an image. It is plain that the Bechers were not attempting to flatter architects or approve of the design and function of the buildings they photographed, as is often the case in the classic understanding of architectural photography. Although it cannot be denied that their many images, like those of August Sander, create a social document for posterity’s sake, the photographs are in no way a sentimental harking back to the past or a reassurance of German identity. The technology depicted in the Bechers’ typological sequences, often in a state of deterioration or abandonment, could be said to represent a time of spiritual poverty and the ‘erosion of inherited cultural and moral values’. In light of this suggestion, Bernd and Hilla Becher seemed to be seeking to document their subjects in a clinical, objective manner; remaining fascinated with but shedding the past in the hope that ‘the unburied industrial sources of Modernist imagery be sanitized and distanced from us, lest [they]… invade the minds of another generation’. Therefore, unlike August Sander, the Bechers are more interested in showing us death (rather than Sander’s life study of the classes of Germany); the photographs can be said to be looking ahead to a better future only if the viewer interprets it so.
Shouldn’t these photos then, fascinated by death to the point of necrophilia, be filed away and forgotten? Rather, it should be said that the photos enlarge our understanding of the photographic image, precisely because they serve as a stark reminder of a past away from which the world has moved. As much as it was tactful for German artists to deny history in the immediate post-war period, Bernd and Hilla Becher chose to show it, with characteristically functionalist honesty and truth. Viewing the photographs, we know that the spiritually repressive time to which the buildings belong has passed and so view our position favourably. Photography is the art form that is most closely comparable to our reality; whether they meant to or not, the Bechers have created art through which we view history with a clarity that cannot be gained through memory or other art forms.
Photography has always been associated with some notion of cutting out and keeping the past in order that it is not forgotten, although not necessarily in order to commend or legitimate the events therein. An extensive collection of nakedly truthful architectural portraits such as the Bechers’, could be said to be a way of preserving the buildings and what they represent, rather than a way of banishing them to ‘the registers of the dead’ in order that society moves forward (or at least away from the faux ‘progression’ of industrialisation). Preservation, yes, and as important to the renewal of German identity as is the conservation of Auschwitz. Indeed, the Bechers were heavily involved in the German industrial preservation movement that started in the 1950s and resulted in numerous icons of the country’s economic and cultural history being listed and their demolition prevented. The power of the Bechers’ art, and therefore part of their rendering of photography as an important form, is tangible in that the photographs were so compelling that they became a part of a movement which changed (or maintained) Germany’s landscape.
It can also be said that, in preserving the winding gear, the framework workers’ houses and silos in their art, the Bechers’ ‘industrial archaeology’ was an investigation into specific communities. Despite claims that their subjects are completely isolated from their environment, the photographs are often dated and their locations documented, and therefore offer a pertinent reminder of a specific space and time for each similar but significantly different image. From there, a viewer can take time to study the stilled physicality of the buildings, their silent watch, whilst remaining aware of their specialised existence within individual societies.
Whilst this is a large part of the Bechers’ typological studies’ legacy, their way of showing buildings is most certainly not anthropocentric. Never do they purposefully use the human form to legitimise or enrich their industrial subjects. Indeed, it is the very absence of the human form that makes these photographs so interesting because actually ‘the handiwork of men is everywhere visible’ and the collection stands partly as a testimony to humankind’s inexhaustible ingenuity and inventiveness. The Bechers’ fascination with metal and all that goes with its production could not be a more powerful statement about that which is alien to human fleshly existence, but in the same way it is a comment on the extents to which industrial people are forced to go because of their reliance on the laws of nature.
Not directly interested in the human form, but nevertheless a product of the human mind and skill, the Bechers’ art shows humankind’s flagging attempt to master nature, to reign it in and use it or, indeed, to ‘make nature in the image of their own desires’. Such a battle can only end in failure as, with water towers for instance, the very function of the buildings remind us that we are utterly reliant on the earth’s resources; only when we combine our understanding of forces such as gravity with our desire to remain alive are we able to create technologies that serve us whilst abiding by nature’s laws. In so saying, it is interesting to note that the static image of the photograph reminds one of the denial of evolution. The Bechers help the viewer see, through their almost exhaustive collection of similar images, the differences between the humans self and the buildings in the photographs. The most pointed distinction being how each succumbs to the processes of evolution. Whilst we move on from war, from old ideas about art, from economic peak to economic trough, these buildings stay very much the same. This becomes part of the distancing process that seems to make the Bechers’ work so important; the photographic image is unchangeable, undeniable truth that will always remain in the past whilst we move on ourselves. The photographs come to deny the ‘progress’ they originally stood for, and so reaffirm our place in the present and, more importantly, suggest our continuation into a future that will be different.
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The Bechers’ work has received much attention; even winning a prestigious prize for sculpture. The framing of the photographed buildings, the uniform lighting used and the subjects’ apparent freedom from their visible environment allows a neutralisation, which brings the buildings closer to sculptural treatment than the two-dimensional reportage that is often the lot of the photographic image. As Klaus Bussmann states in his introduction to the Bechers’ Industrial Façades; ‘in these photographs the function of the architecture does not emerge from its form’. Unlike the art of the Neue Sachlichkeit, the Bechers’ photography does not celebrate the ‘dynamic and dramatic functionality of the industrial machine’; indeed it does not invest them with any meaning at all. We invest them with meaning and memories – but the Bechers were seemingly fascinated by their deadness, their static place in history and their comparison with the vibrancy of human existence.
The Bechers’ work made a remarkable impact on the art world, and the affect of their legacy is partly due to the manner in which they chose to display their photographs when their work was exhibited. If there is an argument that depicts the photographic image as a bland record of what we can all see as it exists or existed in nature, then the Bechers’ typological constructs deny this. Seen in groups; one building in comparison to a dozen others of almost (but pointedly not) identical appearance, the subjects of the photographs are recreated anew, and suddenly become something other than their pure physicality. The viewer is irresistibly invited to take note of those differences, to see the similarities and variations all at once – are they impersonal or not, beautiful or ugly? Seen together, the images become a greater challenge to the viewer’s notion of banality, of universality and the fundamental core of human needs.
Alongside their fellow post-war photographers, the Bechers recreated photography as an art form, which is as legitimate as any other. Their subject matter is not directly passionate, does not reveal the interior workings of the photographers’ identity and does not even deal with emotional issues, as is the common arena of the art world. Instead, their calm, measured series of photographs introduces a part of western industrial society in the most honest way. Because of its closeness to our experience of reality, we react very deeply to photography; the experience of looking at a framed portrait is intensely emotional whether the subject is treated in an emotional manner or not. The legacy of the Bechers runs deep, especially in light of their teachings at Düsseldorf and the photographers who have come after them. Bernd and Hilla truly understood the power of photography and have had a hand in investing the medium with the ‘power to influence our perception of the world around us’. Their legacy is complex and the personal reaction to their work can be confusing as one finds a fascination with the deadness of their subjects at the same time as being instilled with some semblance of hope for the future. Their ‘industrial archaeology’ will remain with us to aid the excavation of man-made landscapes and, indirectly, lead to a better understanding of the human condition.
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- Becher, B. Industrial Façades – Bernd and Hilla Becher. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press: 1995
- Becher, B. Water Towers – Bernd and Hilla Becher. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press: 1988
- De Mare, E. Architectural Photography. London: B T Batsford: 1975
- Gillen, E (ed.) German Art from Beckman to Richter: images of a divided country. London: DuMont: 1997
- Homburg, C (ed.) German Art Now. London: Merrell: 2003
- Honnef, K & Sachsse, R & Thomas, K (eds.) German Photography 1870 – 1970: power of a medium. Cologne: DuMont: 1997
- Mack, M. Reconstructing Space: architecture in recent German photography. London: AA Publications: 1999
- Robinson, C & Herschmann, J. Architecture Transformed: a history of the photography of buildings from 1839 to the present Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press: 1987
- Rosselli, P. (ed.) Architecture in Photography Milan: Skira: 2001
- Sander, A. August Sander: citizens of the twentieth century: portrait photographs 1892 – 1952. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press: 1986
- http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/visarts/globe/issue6/dptxt.html 31.03.05
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