Bernd and Hilla Becher, German, partnership 1959-2007, Water Tower, Youngstown, Ohio, USA, 1980, Gelatin silver print, 40.4 x 30.8 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © Bernd and Hilla Becher.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, German, partnership 1959-2007, Blast Furnace, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 1980, Gelatin silver print, 40.5 x 30.7 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © Bernd and Hilla Becher, 2006.24.1.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, German, partnership 1959-2007, Framework House, Gable Side, Oberdielfer Strasse 18, Oberdielfen, Germany, 1962, Gelatin silver print, 23.8 x 18 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © Bernd and Hilla Becher, 84.XM.125.18.
J. Paul Getty Museum
1200 Getty Center Drive
Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic Forms
May 6-September 14, 2008
Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic Forms explores the collaboration between Bernd and Hilla Becher, a husband and wife team, who photographed the industrial architecture of Western Europe for nearly 50 years.
Together, the Bechers created an archive of basic structural forms, recording the heritage of an industrial past. Using a large-format camera, they documented the disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe with absolute precision. Favoring a typological exploration, the Bechers sequenced their photographs in monographic publications dedicated to specific structural types or arranged them in grids for exhibition.
Influenced by the objectivity of photographic practices between the two world wars, embraced by practitioners of Minimal and Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, and embedded in the visual vocabulary of almost every photographer working today, the systematic nature of their approach has transformed elements ordinarily associated with a non-style into an immediately recognizable style.
“Their choice to limit decisions demonstrates the role the Bechers’ work has played in bridging the gap between photography as document and photography as art in the second half of the twentieth century,” says Virginia Heckert, associate curator for the Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs.
Bernd Becher (German, 1931–2007) and Hilla Wobeser (German, born 1934) first met in 1959 at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Bernd was continuing his studies in painting and typography and Hilla, who had trained as a commercial photographer, was assigned to set up and run a photographic darkroom. Fascinated by the sculptural forms of the industrial structures that rose from the landscape of the nearby region of Siegen where he grew up, Bernd soon began working with Hilla to create straightforward black-and-white photographs that recorded the typical yet “anonymous” architecture of the region’s coal mines, iron ore plants, and residential neighborhoods,
Collaborating fully on all aspects of their work, the Bechers also photographed outside of Germany, including structures throughout Western Europe and the United States. As structures fell into disrepair or became inoperative, and as their increased teaching and exhibition commitments made it more difficult to photograph as extensively, they devoted more time to reviewing and organizing their archive of images. They dedicated monographs to individual themes, beginning with Framework Houses of the Siegen Industrial Region, and continuing into the 21st century with Industrial Landscapes (2002).
Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic Forms will be shown alongside the work of August Sander in the presentation, August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century. Their approach is directly indebted to August Sander’s categorization of basic social types by profession and class and many of their early images were taken in the Siegen district, where Sander’s subjects, in particular, the farmers and villagers, had lived or worked half a century before.
The exhibition was curated by Virginia Heckert, associate curator, Getty Museum’s Department of Photographs.
Born in Siegen in 1931, Bernd Becher studied painting and lithography at the State Art Academy in Stuttgart in the mid-1950s. Hilla Wobeser, born in Potsdam in 1934, trained and apprenticed as a commercial photographer. The two met at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1959, where both studied painting, and together began to photograph the industrial sites familiar to Bernd from his childhood. They married two years later. For the next four and a half decades, they collaborated on all aspects of their self-assigned project, documenting the lime kilns, cooling towers, blast furnaces, winding towers, gas tanks, silos, and other industrial structures of Western Europe. Once they had identified their subjects and obtained the necessary permissions, they traveled to each site, set up their large-format camera, and exposed the black-and-white sheet film, which they jointly developed and printed. Organizing prints into categories according to function, they emphasized a typological examination of structural form as a reflection of function in both exhibition and book formats.
The Bechers’ first exhibition occurred in 1963 at Galerie Ruth Nohl in Siegen, and
numerous exhibitions — individual and group, national and international, and organized by commercial galleries and museums — followed. Travel to some exhibition destinations expanded their repertory to include structures in Great Britain and the United States. They have been represented by Galerie Konrad Fischer in Düsseldorf since 1970 and by Sonnabend Gallery in New York since 1972. The Bechers’ contributions to contemporary art have been acknowledged with numerous commendations, including their participation in the Documenta exhibitions in Kassel in 1972, 1977, and 1982; their representation of Germany at the Forty-fourth Venice Biennale in 1990; winning the Erasmus-Preis, the Netherlands’ most important art prize, in 2002; and being honored by Sweden’s Hasselblad Foundation Award in 2004. Not least of the Bechers’ legacy is their lasting influence on subsequent generations of artists who use the photographic medium today, most notably the students taught by Bernd Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy between 1976 and 1996. Among his most renowned students are Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, German, partnership 1959-2007, Framework House, Gable Side, Rensdorfstrasse 1, Salchendorf, Germany, 1961, Gelatin silver print, 23.9 x 18.1 cm, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, © Bernd and Hilla Becher, 84.XM.125.15.