Bernd and Hilla Becher

This is the best photography book I’ve read in 2022 (and I’ve read a few this year!). It helps if you like the work of the Bechers, but it’s also very well put together, with useful, clearly-written essays, and a surprisingly revealing, wide ranging interview with their son, Max Becher, at the end of the volume.

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As usual, this is not a review, but a note of a few passages that caught my eye.

One sentence that captures the apparent simplicity of their approach:

They treated every object differently in order to make them all look like they were seen the same way.

Max Becher

Advice to students on the use of more immediately appealing work:

Because people always approach an artist’s work from the most famous pieces, which get reproduced over and over.

Such as water towers?

Yes. Those are very strong images, and they get that point across. But when you dig deeper, you realize that they represent just one method.

I have often mentioned to students that it can be productive to have an arrow-shaped approach to their art, where there is a very sharp tip that pushes the content through to the public. For my parents, that would be the typology.

The typology is their mark.

Yes, it’s their signature. Then there’s the rest of the arrow, which is much broader and has all these complications. For example, there are all those photographs that have not been widely seen but are of great interest to industrial and social historians.

That’s a fascinating reading of artistic development.

My parents knew how to make a snappy presentation that was quick and easy to understand. It came from their work in advertising.

Max Becher in interview with Jeff Rosenheim

On their appreciation for genres of photogrphy outside the art world:

Hilton Kramer, the New York Times art critic, completely didn’t understand my parents photographs. He wrote that their work was like real estate photography. And my mother said, “That’s okay. We like real esate photographs.” He wrote that there was no passion, no drama. no story. And that’s a total misreading of their achievement. It’s just made to look easy. It’s so sophisticated that it just looks like somebody took the picture in a snap, right?

Max Becher

On the role of industrial photography in propaganda. Images of buildings or landscapes can serve ideological ends, just as much as those of people. But because they’re often presented in such an objective style, it’s easy to miss:

The appearance of industry had to be packaged for mass consumption in the nineteenth century, when modern factories sprang up in what had recently been farmland or woods. For example, the sites illustrated in Industrial Belgium (published in 1852 and 1854) “display a rational architecture of mining, with a medieval or classical aesthetic that exalts its grandiose character.” Although the more overwhelming
or rebarbative components, such as smokestacks or mineheads, would simply have to be tolerated, since there was no practical way to make
them look like anything else, public-facing edifices could be given arched gateways, turreted corners, or crenellated tops. But that lasted only so long because smoke soon enshrouded everything and made aesthetic qualities difficult to perceive. The engraved plates of Industrial Belgium, which had their counterparts in most Western nations beginning in the early nineteenth century, constituted propaganda of a nationalistic or commercial character. Not until much later in the century did artists first begin to take industry and its trappings as a subject, and few bothered to note the aesthetic pretensions (or lack thereof) of their constructed settings, mostly relegating them to distant evocation.

A year after Van Gogh’s factory drawing, the Belgian academic painter Constantin Meunier, by then in mid-career, was commissioned to illustrate a study of the Borinage. He was moved so profoundly by his visit to the region that he undertook a series of paintings and, later, sculp-
tures. His miners heave and tug heroically, sires of all the Social Realist laborers of the twentieth century, and even when they are headed off to
the pit, in silhouette like Van Gogh’s, some of them walk chest forward like the vanguard of the people (fig. 67). The settings include theatrically
lit foundry interiors and landscapes that look like battlefields blanketed in layers of smoke and smog, with slag heaps towering over fields of gray.
ish dirt. dotted here and there with skeletons of trees and brick collieries that already look old.

Lucy Sante

On the old chestnut of so-called objective photographs lacking artistic agency:

By devising and adhering to a methodology and a philosophy that were defined by systematic analysis, the Bechers produced an archive of rigorously neutral, black-and-white photographs to reveal the essential shapes and functional characteristics of industrial structures, particularly when arranged in typological groupings. Their photographs may be devoid of artistic inflection, but not of passion. It was the uninflected nature of their passion that sustained the lifelong
project, which had been sparked by their shared fascination with the anonymous architecture of a disappearing industrial era.

Virginia Heckert

On the impact of the simple decision of how to angle the camera:

The work of Albert Renger-Patzsch, a third photographer associated with New Objectivity, is more directly related to that of the Bechers because of its focus on industrial architecture. For many years he documented industrial landscapes in the Ruhr district, aiming his camera at the very structures and sites that the Bechers would photograph decades later (figs. 23-26). While some of the views are virtually interchangeable, side-by-side comparisons reveal differences of approach and evidence of the passage of time. Renger-Patzsch frequently chose an upward camera angle to capture an individual structure, lending it
monumentality, whereas the Bechers’ images convey the exact proportions and details of their subjects in the manner of architectural drawings. A point of overlap between the Bechers’ philosophy and that of Renger-Patzsch is a fundamental regard for the essence of the object-particularly as encapsulated in its formal structure-which he characterized in 1928: “There must be an increase in the joy one takes in an object, and the photographer should become fully conscious of the splendid fidelity of reproduction made possible by his technique.”

Virginia Heckert

On their approach to teaching – and living – as artists:

Former student Andreas Gursky’s recollection of this experience was caplured by one curator: I was not so much in terms of the conceptual side of photography or how to use the technology around the camera; the most important thing that they did, and what really made a difference for Andreas, was that they invited him and his fellow students to their home where they sat and drank coffee, or had a glass of wine, and discussed and debated and to be in that environment-to see how all their photographs and equipment and Kodak boxes and so on completely surrounded them in their daily lives; to see that being an artist, or being a photographer, is not going to the studio and taking a few pictures then going home; to see that it’s a way of living… that of art and life being entwined, that there’s no separation between the life you live and the art you make has stayed with him throughout.”

Virginia Heckert

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