By Michelle Chaplow
The German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, embarked on a project together in 1959, methodically photographing items of industrial architecture, purely on the basis of their “lack of design”, water tanks, mining equipment, oil refineries. Industrial plants, refrigeration plants, wheat cereals etc. This project took them to various countries including Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, Holland and France. They married in 1961.
They took a very scientific approach to their black and white photography, rigorously calculating, the focal distance and exposure, building platforms and scaffolding to support their 10 x 8 plate camera, using long exposures under white skies, clouds were never featured, the position of the subject in the frame is always the same. Technical perfection. An approach with the aim of objectivity and with disregard for romantic subjectivity.
To many, these items of industrial architecture are almost invisible, however in this project Bernad and Hilla Becher brought visibility to common industrial post war infrastructure, such as elevated water tanks. Items that have from an engineering point of view have a pure functional form with little or no regard for architectural elegance or aesthetics. Most people would never give these tanks a second glance, they are almost invisible within a landscape. Even the very occasional worker in the image takes on an invisible role.
As time passed their work become even more interesting as these same photographically documented structures were demolished and architectural styles changed, their work moved on to another level, providing historic artistic visual consciousness.
When the photographs were collated and exhibited together in grids of grid of six, nine, or fifteen, the result was striking. Their scientific methodical approach to photography, their years of dedication, creating a series of uniform images, from what individually are generally regarded as uninspiring structures. The Bechers used the term “typology” to describe these ordered sets of photographs.
What does shine though from this collaborative artistic duo is their passion for the project and their love and dedication the project and simultaneously to one another. The Berchers travelled thousands of miles, over many years with huge bulky equipment to achieve their aim, with no initial commercial objective.
Their work is represented in various collections worldwide including, The Tate Gallery, London and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.