The husband and wife team of Bernd and Hilla Becher began photographing together in 1959. For close to fifty years, they documented architectural forms they collectively referred to as “anonymous sculpture.” Their extensive series of water towers, blast furnaces, coal mine tipples, framework houses of mine workers, and other vernacular industrial architecture—often technologies on the verge of obsolescence—comprise an in-depth study of the intricate relationship between form and function. The Bechers produced impeccable black and white photographs, using a large-format camera carefully positioned under overcast skies to record shadowless front and side elevation views of their subjects. Arranging these matched photographs in a grid, the Bechers produced what they called “typologies,” which grouped buildings by function, underscoring the similarities and differences between structures.
Bernd Becher studied painting and lithography, and Hilla Wobeser trained as a commercial photographer. The two met in Düsseldorf, and began collaborating, photographing industrial sites Bernd knew from his childhood. They married in 1961. The Bechers went on to teach at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where they influenced a generation of photographers including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, and Thomas Struth.
In 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and SFMOMA organized a retrospective celebrating the Bechers’ remarkable achievement. The exhibition was the first ever organized with full access to the artists’ personal collection of working materials and their comprehensive archive. Their work is included in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Dia Art Foundation, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Tate Modern, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebæk, Denmark, among many others. In 2004, the couple were the recipients of the Hasselblad Award, and in 2014, Hilla Becher was awarded the Grand Prize for Culture of the Sparkasse Cultural Foundation of Rhineland.
Many books on their work are in publication, each titled after the industrial structure that they document.