a couple who turned coal mines and water towers into art.

Artexplainer in a stories
Pavlo Bishko
May 23, 2023
Bernd and Hilla Becher were a late German photographer couple who spent almost 50 years documenting the disappearing industrial architecture of Europe and North America.
Photo: Brockdorff / ullstein bild via Getty Images
Their collaboration began in 1959 when they met at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where Bernd studied painting and lithography and Hilla studied commercial photography. Their first shootings together were in the industrial areas around Düsseldorf.
Water Towers, 1978-79. Gelatin silver prints Becher Estate. SFMOMA
After two years of teamwork, they got married. Later, they began teaching at their alma mater, where they influenced a whole generation of German photographers, from Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff to Candida Höfer.
Andress Gursky. Photo: Imago images / Peter Endig
The Bechers worked meticulously on their life's work for five decades. They studied water towers, blast furnaces, coal mines, and other industrial architecture that was often on the verge of obsolescence.
"When we realized that industrial buildings were disappearing, we captured them on camera. It was like a duty for us," they explained their work.
Using a large-format camera, the couple created flawless black-and-white photographs of industrial objects, which they called "anonymous sculpture." The Bechers grouped their photographs into grids of four, nine, fifteen, or even thirty frames. These so-called typologies emphasized the similarities and differences between structures that performed the same function.
Gas Holders, Germany, 1963-1993. Gelatin silver prints, Fisher Collection. SFMOMA
For example, the Winding Towers series, shot between 1966 and 1997, presents nine separate images of mining towers. In a single grid, they transform the specificity of individual towers into variations of an ideal form, and vice versa, within a typology, preserving their individual characteristics.
Winding Towers. Photo: Wikimedia
"The question "Is this a work of art or not?" is not very interesting to us," they said. However, both during the photographers' lifetime and after their deaths (Bernd passed away in 2007, Hilla in 2015), the Bechers' work was in the field of view of the artistic community.
Bernd and Hilla Becher.. Photo: Max Becher
In 2004, the Bechers won the prestigious Hasselblad Photography Award, and in 2014, Hilla Becher received the Grand Prix in the field of culture from the Rhineland Cultural Foundation Sparkasse.
In 2022, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco organized a retrospective dedicated to the Bechers' outstanding achievement. It was the first exhibition in the history of museums with full access to the artists' personal collection of work materials and their archive.
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