Why go to a museum when you could visit a coal mine? For the photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, the aesthetics of a tipple or water tower rivaled anything that a curator could set on a pedestal. The couple also admired the blast furnaces and lime kilns that sustained heavy industry in midcentury Germany. With a view camera on a tripod, the Bechers documented this vernacular architecture as meticulously as Ansel Adams photographed Yosemite. Over nearly half a century, as heavy industry receded in Western Europe, they relentlessly pursued this subject, referring to the blast furnaces and water towers as “anonymous sculpture”.
The success of their project was as unequivocal as their commitment to it. Although they were traditionalists behind the camera, eschewing the convenience of 35-millimeter film and the allure of color, the outcome was almost immediately recognized as groundbreaking, a judgment that has stood the test of time and is reaffirmed in a monumental new retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The dozens of works in the exhibit and accompanying monograph are most immediately striking for their visual consistency, the result of several decisions the couple made shortly after they began collaborating in 1959. Beyond their choice of subject and medium, they were adamant about isolating each anonymous sculpture they selected, making pictures that are remarkably neutral. The framing is usually frontal or perspectival. They avoided cloudy skies, afternoon shadows, and any trace of people. These decisions allowed them to forefront the sculptural qualities of equipment that most viewers would not consider sculptural. By making their photography as anonymous as possible, they lent the anonymous architecture the dignity of artwork encountered in a museum.
However, all was not resolved in 1959. The decisions that the Bechers made early in their career left adequate space for their project to develop. In fact, the qualities that have turned out to be most significant were almost accidental in origin.
To recontextualize vernacular architecture as anonymous sculpture was essentially Duchampian. Although Duchamp worked with physical objects, framing a blast furnace as art was no more radical than displaying a shovel or urinal. Some artistic contemporaries of the Bechers, such as Donald Judd, ascended from Neo-Dada mischief by making industrial processes sculptural. Others, such as Ed Ruscha, innovated by broaching popular culture. The Bechers advanced by recognizing that their visual neutrality allowed them to compare and contrast the architecture documented in their prodigious archive, creating what they referred to as “typologies”.
The deceptively simple move from individual images to grids of coal tipples and lime kilns had astonishing implications. They approached it, as always, with the utmost rigor and earnestness, informed by Linnaean taxonomy as much as architectural history or industrial aesthetics. “The comparison of butterfly and beetle collections is by no means absurd,” they explained in the German architectural journal Deutsche Bauzeitung in 1967. “The principles of mutation and selection also apply to our objects.” This provided them with a powerful means of analyzing the architecture, and also informed their selection process over the remainder of their career. “What we would like is to produce a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes,” Hilla asserted in 1970. Doing so, the couple believed, would help to surface the essential functionality of a tower or furnace, the purpose underlying the variety of forms it took.
This manifestly unaesthetic goal might have positioned the Bechers as first-rate architectural historians or even as inventors of the next big thing in heavy industry. But their technical language is misleading, concealing the romanticism that inspired them from the moment they started to perceive anonymous sculptures where others saw only industrial blight. “By looking at these photographs simultaneously, you store the knowledge of an ideal type,” they contended. Their claim is convincing. It’s nothing less than the key to the miracle they perform time and time again in work that never lets you blink.
Soon after the Bechers began showing their work, they drew comparisons to Conceptualism, which shared with their work a quality of unsentimental rigidity. The parallel was problematic because the primary response to their art has always been visual. Whereas Conceptualists tended to use monotony to awaken the mind by anesthetizing the eye, the Bechers enlisted neutrality to show what couldn’t be seen by the eyes alone. Yet their work has always been small-c conceptual, sharing with the Conceptualists an appeal to the incorporeal.
No greater recognition could have been bestowed upon the couple than the award of a Golden Lion at the 1990 Venice Biennale. They weren’t recognized as photographers. The prize was awarded in the category of sculpture.
The sculpture made by the couple was conceptual. As the industrial architecture of Western Europe was torn down or fell to ruin, the Bechers used photography to sculpt all that was beautiful about tipples and water towers inside people’s minds, out of harm’s way, where they could no longer cause environmental devastation.