Hilla Becher, 1934-2015


German photographer Hilla Becher has died, aged 81 years. For many years she and her husband Bernd (1931-2007) photographed industrial buildings, creating works in which multiple images were arranged in rows and columns. The Bechers were fascinated with the variations in design of buildings built for the same purpose, such as the various water towers shown above. They were also drawn to industries that were in decline. The photographs are carefully composed to remove distractions, such as other buildings or landscape features; a landscape view of the entire scene would also be taken. They made sure to shoot when no shadows would be case. As a result their works are catalog-like, with a deadpan affect that is often true of conceptual art. Initially working in their native Germany, the Bechers went on to photograph in other parts of Europe and the United States. Bernd Becher taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf from 1976 to 1996. Their work became widely influential, to the point where art historians speak of the “Becher school.”


The Bechers’ work stays away from emotional content: these are buildings of a certain type – see the variations. This is classically conceptual thinking. There is beauty in the little touches architects and builders bring, even to plain industrial buildings. “Plain” is more a reflection of our reaction to them than the buildings themselves; they were made to function, not to be admired. Conceptual art, like science, understands the fascination with the encyclopedic, the catalog. Look at the water towers. They look like steampunk spaceships or mad scientists’ hidden laboratories. The grain elevators in the second image seem to resemble models for skyscrapers. I cannot quantify just why I like them: the reasons I could give are inadequate. The Bechers are represented in just about every art museum that covers contemporary art, and rightly so.


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