Visual Arts in Germany: Exhibitions and Artist Portraits

The incorruptible gaze – the photographer-couple Bernd and Hilla Becher


Pit frames, gasometres, blast furnaces: such relics of industrial culture were the preferred motifs of Bernd and Hilla Becher, who influenced several generations of successful German art photographers.

Bernd Becher, born in Siegen in 1931, experienced heavy industry at full steam, so to speak, along the Sieg and Ruhr rivers when he was a child. Chimneys still smoked and hammers droned in the former mining and iron and steel-making region. Thick smoke and soot may have caused others to turn up their noses, for the locals, however, these were part of their life and indicators of intact economic power. In 1957, when the Eisenhardter Tiefbau mine was shut down, Bernd Becher, meantime a qualified graphic artist, wanted to do drawings of the site so as to capture everything in precise detail and save what for decades had been the powerhouse of the area from oblivion. But the demolition went faster than he could draw, so Bernd Becher resorted to a camera.

Around the same time he got to know his later wife, the commercial photographer Hilla Wobeser, born in Potsdam in 1934. She had just moved to Dusseldorf and was immediately taken by the industrial buildings in the Ruhr District, “those strange creatures”, as she put it. For the young artist-couple the huge technical installations by nameless engineers were like “anonymous sculptures”. So the two of them set out, in a Volkswagen bus and equipped with a heavy plate-camera, to document industrial monuments which they felt were worthy of being remembered: blast furnaces, gas tanks, lime kilns, water, shaft and cooling towers, mines, coal bunkers, grain elevators. That mammoth task could well have gone awry were it not for a crystal clear concept: Bernd and Hilla Becher had chosen as their method the typological picture series ingeniously adopted by August Sander (1876-1964) for his photographic documentation People of the 20th Century.

Objectivity instead of Drama

Objectivity and neutrality were the Bechers’ imperative and are predominant in their black-and-white photographs, which are always taken from the same angle and with the same precision; thousands of images which never betray a trace of work and show no signs of theatrical shadow-play or weather influence. Until Bernd Becher’s death in 2007, the photographer-couple travelled the world, finding motifs in Pennsylvania and Southern Wales, in Lorraine and not least in Belgium – after all, Liège was an advanced post of continental Europe’s steel industry.

They focussed not only on individual buildings, but also on whole plants within their surroundings. These industrial landscapes tell us that bit more about life in a mining community. For example, in a photograph dated 1975 we see miners’ dwellings in Liège squashed between the high St. Nicolas pithead buildings and the train tracks, and these living conditions differ very little from those in Wanne-Eickel or Pittsburgh. The Bechers’ oeuvre made an important and enriching photographic contribution to concept art, while at the same time ensuring that the cultural-historical value of those functional buildings, monuments to the industrial age, was recognized before they were all demolished.

No Snapshots

Only few artists have succeeded like the Bechers in not only creating an oeuvre of international standing, but also, as teachers, in training several generations of extremely successful students. In 1976 Bernd Becher accepted a professorship at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf; the couple later taught there together. As of the 1980s, and as graduates of the Becher School, also called the Dusseldorf Photography School, a number of the stars of German art photography began their successful careers, among them, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Axel Hütte. They were followed a little later by Andreas Gursky, who has meantime become the most expensive photo-artists of our day. The Bechers’ highly concentrated “school of seeing”, which prioritised theme-related objectivity and rejected chance and snapshots, trains people to strive for sober distance and supreme depth of field.

Many of their students have taken to working in typologies. Ruff, for example, with his portraits of friends or Internet pornography, Candida Höfer with her focus on libraries, and Struth in his observation of people looking at art. The Bechers’ rejection of colour and large formats has made it easier for the younger photographers to find a path of their own: some students opted to work with colour prints in dimensions that were unheard of until then. The swift development of digital image processing also presented new possibilities. It inspired Ruff’s reflections on the photographic medium, while Gursky now uses a computer to transform his photographs into abstract compositions. Yet only few of them abandoned the Becher’s sober path. Elger Esser is one of them: his new images of French landscapes are almost reminiscent of romantic pictorialism. Esser is from the younger Becher School, like Bernhard Fuchs, Simone Nieweg and Jörg Sasse.

Everyday Items as Precious Gems

Laurenz Berges and Claud Goedicke were two of the last to graduate before the Bechers retired in 1996. Both were born in 1966. A lead pencil, dentures, a slice of bread, potatoes, a hammer – Goedicke isolates commonplace things so as to draw attention to them by photographing them in large format, frontally and centred in the image, like precious gems. They appear to be saying, “pay attention to me”, with the artist giving them their aesthetic due against simple sensitively chosen backdrops. Goedicke’s mises-en-scène make viewers aware of their own experiences with things and of the indispensability of these little helpers.

Laurenz Berges took photographs in abandoned Russian barracks in East Germany shortly after the political turnaround of 1989. These photographs are early indicators of his typological interest in signs of life in deserted rooms and buildings. Concisely and objectively, like his teachers, he photographed the dirty mattress in the corner, the yellowed blinds in front of dull windows and all the scorned relics at which decay soon begins to gnaw. But melancholy has no chance with Berges; it is thwarted by his perfect frames which operate with the aesthetic properties of materials.
Brita Sachs
is Munich correspondent for the culture section of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.

Translation: Pauline Cumbers
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2012

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