How Hilla Becher found beauty and dignity in industrial decline
Source:theguardian Author:Sean O'Hagan Date: 2015-10-19 Size:
It feels strange to speak of Hilla Becher singly. Even after her death this week, she is so intertwined in the creative dynamic that was the Bechers……

Detail from Gas Tanks, 1973-2009, by Bernd and Hilla Becher.

It feels strange to speak of Hilla Becher singly. Even after her death this week, she is so intertwined in the creative dynamic that was the Bechers. Alongside her late husband, Bernd, she created a visual signature as identifiable as any in the entire history of photography.

Over 40 years the pair used an 8x10 large-format camera to document buildings that defined the industrial landscape: blast furnaces, water towers, coal bunkers, gas tanks, silos and factory facades, all printed in black-and-white and arranged in grids that emphasised their sameness – what she once called their “universality”.

When asked in a recent interview why they only photographed industrial structures, Hilla replied: “Because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do – that is what we liked. A person always is what he or she wants to be, never what he or she is. Even an animal usually plays a role in front of the camera.”

There was more to it than that, of course. For Bernd, the process of photographing and thus fixing these brutalist structures forever was rooted in his love of the landscape he grew up in as a child. The huge buildings that dominated and defined his childhood in the Ruhr began to disappear rapidly in Germany’s postwar economic period, and he rightly sensed they would disappear elsewhere – across Europe, Britain and America – in the coming years.

Detail from Petrochemical Plant, Wesseling, Germany, 1983.

So began a process of documentation rooted in personal memory, but utterly devoid of any trace of romance or nostalgia.

“Our attitude was romantic; our images are not,” Hilla recently explained. “We tried to erase this feeling from our images, we didn’t want people to notice.”

The Bechers were, first and foremost, formalists. “We want to offer the audience a point of view, or rather a grammar, to understand and compare the different structures,” they once said. “Through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association.”

Their style was marked by detachment, precision and similarity – and their method was a reaction to the Soviet-realist style of photography, in which buildings in all their monumentalism reflected the grandeur of the state. More than that, though, they saw their photographs as an attempt – a perhaps impossible one – to invoke the actual presence of the looming towers and spherical tanks.

Because of this, the Bechers’ images straddled the conflicting worlds of documentary and art, making them hugely influential for several generations of artists, not least the many photographers they taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky.

Hilla Becher helped create a style and a movement – the Düsseldorf School. On hearing of her death, Struth described her as “uncompromising but open-minded and gentle ... always curious, not sentimental but loving”.

Bernd and Hilla Becher at Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof museum.

The Bechers met in 1957 when she was working in an advertising agency and he was still at art school studying to be a painter. She was, as she said later, “the more conceptual one”. Soon after, they began collaborating. How they actually worked together depended on what they had to do. Often, one of them cleared debris and erected the ladders they perched on to take their shots, while the other carried the equipment from their van. Sometimes, when they had been given permission to photograph a structure for only a short period, they used two cameras, photographing simultaneously.

In the early years, with a young son in tow, they travelled across Europe and later the US for weeks at a time in a Volkswagen camper van, cooking and eating by the roadside. Hilla described Bernd as “the obsessive one”, though she too was a perfectionist. They shared both a fascination with industrial architecture and, more crucially, a way of seeing. She, though, was the one with photography training – she started out as both an aerial photographer and an architectural photographer specialising in classical buildings. Her eye, her technical skill and her conceptualist leanings must surely have underpinned their approach in their early years together.

Alongside her late husband, Hilla saw structures that others might have dismissed as ugly, even threatening, and made them unforgettable.

In 2008, intriguingly, Hilla mentioned that she would like to take photographs of a particular kind of gas tank specific to England, describing them as “huge and really beautiful” and “becoming extinct”. She had already travelled to London to locate them and take preparatory snapshots. One has to wonder if she ever completed that task.

[Editor] 张艳