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Bernd And Hilla Becher

"The question if this is a work of art or not is not very interesting for us. Probably it is situated in between the established categories. Anyway the audience which is interested in art would be the most open-minded and willing to think about it." — Bernd and Hilla Becher

Pittsburgh, the Ruhrgebiet, Liverpool, Lorraine— world-famous manufacturing cities and regions that simultaneously call the great economic crises to mind. The decades-long decline of the German coal mining and steel industry not only put hundreds of thousands out of work but delivered up the concrete vestiges of a bygone era to the demolition ball.The architectural record of heavy industry on the Rhine and the Ruhr—former pride of the early industrial period—will remain part of the general visual memory thanks to the Bechers' painstaking collecting and recording activity. 

For 40 years they roamed the region around Dortmund, Essen, and Siegen, photographing mines, pitheads, water towers, Bessemer converters, gasometers, ventilators and factories. They recorded grain silos and houses, especially the half-timber houses in the Siegen manufacturing area. Pilgrimages with the camera took them to abandoned manufacturing plants in Liége, Pas-de-Calais, Ohio, South Wales, and Pennsylvania. It was a systematic survey of a kind not seen since the days of Eugene Atget. Albert Renger-Patzsch, too, was a predecessor of this type of industrial reportage.  

The Bechers' archival activity was sparked by a fascination with the commanding presence of these industrial monuments, their look of "anonymous sculptures," despite the fact that, being engineering structures, they were seldom designed with an eye to aesthetic effect. The photographers' aim was "to prove that the forms of our times are the technical forms," as they announced as early as 1971. This was the period of Pop Art, when many artists, tired of subjective abstraction, turned to the cool gloss of the readymade and sometimes rejected painting entirely. 

To achieve maximum precision, the Bechers used large-format cameras whose long exposure times caused passersby to vanish from the picture. Only diffuse, cloudy light supplied the homogeneous illumination they desired. Photographing in spring or fall had the advantage that shrubs and trees were bare and did not obscure the structures. The Bechers climbed ladders and scaffolds, perched on roofs, or photographed from the windows of neighboring houses to find the ideal, half-high vantage point from which images undistorted by perspective could be taken. This unchanging viewpoint from image to image engenders a regular rhythm that lends a compelling aesthetic effect to their photographs when combined into multipartite tableaux.

Excerpt taken from 50 Photographers You Should Know by Peter Stepan


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