Bernd and Hilla Becher, giants of photography from the Düsseldorf school, come out of the shadows


Bernd and Hilla Becher, the de facto founders of Germany’s Düsseldorf School of Photography, are giants in the history of 20th-century European photography, but they may seem like noncomers to the world of American museums. , where their best-known proteges, such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth have an established presence while the Bechers have been relatively neglected. That should change this month, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opens. Bernd & Hilla Becherthe duo’s first major American survey, featuring around 200 of their works.

The Bechers, a lifelong presence at the Düsseldorf art academy during the post-war heyday, made their mark with what they called “typologies” – black and white photographs stark white industrial architecture, usually taken over several decades and then arranged with precision. in analytical but mysteriously elegant grids. The overall aim was to document ignored or even reviled structures, including blast furnaces, cooling towers, gas tanks and grain silos, but the effect was to synthesize longstanding innovations in photography with new trends in the visual arts.

blast furnaces (1969-93) by Bernd & Hilla Becher © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

The images that make up the mature Becher typologies are indeed hyper-refined works of black and white photography, reminiscent of the subtle monochrome palette and compositional rigor of Walker Evans and Eugène Atget. But their unusual display also managed to transcend the photographic genre entirely, sharing traits with minimalism, conceptual art and installation art. In 1990, the Bechers, then arguably at the height of their artistic output, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale – for sculpture.

The New York exhibition, which will travel later this year to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, features a number of esteemed typologies of the pair, including Winding towers (1966-97), comprising three rows of three photographs of gallows-shaped mine heads above the Welsh coal mines, and their massive, spooky depictions of blast furnaces, with three rows of ten, taken between 1969 and 1993 , in the United States, in Germany, Luxembourg, France and Belgium.

The understated perfection of the images belies the immense effort that has gone into each one, says Met curator Jeff Rosenheim. The couple wanted “neutral fields,” Rosenheim says, to emphasize the odd shapes of the structures. This sent them in search of everything from perfect weather – that is, for the Bechers, overcast, with minimal direct sunlight – to sustained access to hazardous locations at industrial sites in activity, in order to adapt to their framings resembling portraits of the structures themselves.

The couple’s decades-long persistence in getting the right shots, in near daredevil conditions, will be highlighted on the show, thanks to behind-the-scenes Polaroids and newspaper clips.

Bernd Becher Eisenhardter Tiefbau Mine, Eisern, Germany (1955-56) Estate of Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy of Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur—Bernd & Hilla Becher Archive, Cologne.

The exhibition will provide a comprehensive overview of the couple’s mature work, which formed in close collaboration from 1970 until Bernd’s death in 2007 at the age of 75. (Hilla died in 2015, aged 81.) But “the revelation of the show,” Rosenheim says, will be examples of their earlier and distinct work from the 1950s and early 1960s. Hilla was the more experienced photographer, while Bernd was an inspired graphic designer. The exhibition includes largely unknown works such as Bernd’s mid-1950s, quasi-romantic sketches of the German Eisernhardter Tiefbau mine in Eisern, south of his hometown of Siegen, and light-eyed neo-Weimar commercial work by Hilla, like the one from 1964. Study of a steel wire.

These early works foreshadow what was to come, but some also represent a road not taken, such as Bernd’s vivid watercolor sketch of the Eisernhardter mine – a blue sky response to the couple’s later devotion to shades of concrete grey.


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