Bernd & Hilla Becher

Bernd: b. 1931, Siegen; d. 2007, Rostock, Germany
Hilla: b. 1934, Potsdam; d. 2015, Düsseldorf, Germany

Partners in both life and art, Bernd and Hilla Becher rank amongst the pioneers of conceptual photography. They met in the late 1950s: Bernd was studying painting and typography and Hilla photography. As early as 1959 they began taking documentary photographs of German industrial architecture, which was then rapidly falling into disuse, and became fascinated by the process. Their quest began in the Ruhr region, where Bernd’s father had worked in the steel and mining industries. They were attracted by the uniformity of the buildings and the design sensibility that informed them.

The Bechers followed an identical pattern throughout their career, both in their choice of subjects and in terms of photographic technique. They always used an 8x10-inch camera and took frontal shots of buildings from a fixed, objective camera angle. They also exerted a high degree of control over the conditions in which they worked: invariably photographing in overcast weather, always in the morning, and only in spring and summer. In so doing, they tried to rid their images of anything individualistic or that might invoke an atmosphere, such as the play of light and shadows.

Instead of focusing on differences in details, the Bechers arranged their photographs on the basis of physical similarities. Their genealogy of industrial architecture, which they called ‘Typologies’, consists of photographs arranged in lines or grids with 3, 6, 9 or 15 images. The titles of the series indicate the location, the country and sometimes the time when the photos were taken.

This objective way of working is linked to ‘New Typography’, a photographic movement that emerged in the 1970s and aimed to eradicate personal style from the field of landscape photography. The Bechers themselves claimed that they borrowed their approach from ‘New Objectivity’, a movement from the interwar years that stood for the emotionless representation of everyday objects. In fact, The Bechers greatly admired August Sander and Karl Blossfelt.

From the mid-1960s, the duo also took photographs in England, France, Belgium and, from the early 1970s, the United States. In this period, they regularly exhibited and published their ‘Typologies’, which Carl Andre reviewed for ‘Art Forum’. He linked their strict methodology, the use of grids and their serial production techniques to minimalism and conceptual art. From then on, Bernd and Hilla Becher were mentioned in the same breath as the other pioneers of these movements, such as Sol LeWitt, Joseph Kosuth and Robert Smithson.

Bernd taught at the Düsseldorf School of Photography from the mid-1970s, where he greatly influenced a number of students who went on to achieve international fame in their own right, such as Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer and Andreas Gursky. Thanks to these figures, the so-called ‘Becher-Schule’ (Becher School) quickly became a household name in the international art world.

Works Bernd & Hilla Becher


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