Bernd and Hilla Becher’s fifth exhibition with Fraenkel Gallery spans the artists’ career and traces the evolution of the presentation of their work, from single images and grids to groups of larger framed images. Among the highlights are typologies, industrial landscapes, and iconic water towers.
The Bechers began their photographic collaborations in 1959, shortly after meeting at an advertising agency while students at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. The couple first focused their attention on the evolving industrial landscape of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, as seen in the colliery and surrounding town above. While most often regarded for their studies of individual structures, such wider, narrative views of industrial sites allow for a more social and historical contextualization of their subjects. From the Ruhr Valley, their artistic explorations soon carried them across Germany, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and the United States.
A 2010 typology brings together six photographs of double water towers, recorded between 1963 and 1972. Among the criteria the Bechers used to select their subjects was that the form of the structure must relate to its function. Although their designs vary widely, water towers serve a most basic function, storing water and controlling its pressure.
While much of the Bechers’ work focused on twentieth-century industrial processes, they also recorded older manufacturing traditions, such as the lime kilns used to turn limestone into quicklime. Compelled by the desire to document industrial technologies in decline, the artists relied upon their large-format film camera—a photographic practice they themselves perceived to be increasingly obsolete. The Bechers’ oeuvre attests to a deep reverence for industries past, despite their seeming demise.
These four large-format studies of blast furnaces in Germany compare the subtle differences between strangely anthropomorphic forms. Iron production took place for more than 100 years at the site in Völklingen, ending the same year the Bechers photographed there. The blast furnaces are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One gallery in the exhibition features fifteen Water Towers, dating from 1967 to 1984, echoing the installation of the artists’ seminal exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in 1989. There, rather than presenting the images in grid form, the artists displayed the works around the room, in a sense expanding the typologies to encompass the whole space.
Grain elevators, which brought the scale of industrial production to an agricultural product, were a longtime subject for the Bechers. As these examples show, a consistency of form across the United States and France rendered the grain elevator a universal and immediately recognizable subject.
The Bechers’ approach to these structures, however “impersonal” or “uninflected” (as some critics have argued), has resulted in a style as consistent and identifiable as their subjects.
What has become affectionately known as the “Becher School” or the “Düsseldorf School of Photography” refers not only to the Bechers’ recognizable style, but also to their lasting impact on photography and contemporary art. The rigorous documentary methods of German artists Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hütte, and Thomas Ruff, for example, stem from the Bechers’ mentorship and teaching.
The Bechers’ legacy has also inspired generations of American artists, many of whom have returned to those same sites from the German artists’ North American travels. In 1986, the Bechers photographed the hillside and steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The picture serves as a bridge, linked to both Walker Evans’s photograph from the same spot, A Graveyard and Steel Mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 1935, in which a stone cross dominates the view, and Alec Soth’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, 2019, where a minivan interrupts the landscape.