Bernd and Hilla Becher: Mines and Mills-Industrial Landscape at the Fotomuseum in Winterthru

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Bernd and Hilla Becher: Mines and Mills-Industrial Landscape at the Fotomuseum in Winterthru
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Zeche Concordia, Oberhausen, D, 1967. Gelatin silver print, 50 x 60 cm © Bernd and Hilla Becher / Courtesy of Schirmer/Mosel.

ZURICH.- For more than forty years, the photographer couple Bernd (1931-2007 and Hilla Becher (*1934) worked on creating an inventory of industrial architecture. Warehouses, shaft towers, gas tanks, blast furnaces as well as half-timbered houses are among the subjects they photographed throughout Germany, England, France, Central Europe, and the USA. Calling these buildings “anonymous sculptures,” they refer to the artistic quality of the constructions, which played no role for the buildings’ largely unknown builders and users. Their photographs attempt to draw attention to these hidden sculptural qualities and to document them historically as a building tradition in decline.

Bernd and Hilla Becher have always held particular interest for the industrial architecture in the Ruhr region. The exhibition Mines and Mills – Industrial Landscapes systematically examines this aspect of their work for the first time. Even today, names such as the Concordia and Hannibal collieries or Gutehoffnungshütte stand for the industrial history of the Ruhr region. Instead of concentrating on individual buildings, the exhibition approaches the mining facilities (where coal was produced for the smelting works) as a whole and in the context of their urban or natural surroundings. This typology, which the Bechers described as “industrial landscape,” compares the Ruhr region with similar complexes elsewhere in Europe and the USA.

As with their typological multiple and serial views of buildings, Bernd and Hilla Becher strive for a comparative perspective in their industrial landscapes. Demonstrating great photographic restraint in their approach and in the name of a “New Objectivity” dedicated solely to the object, they stand in a long tradition of proponents of the documentary gaze that includes Eugène Atget, Karl Blossfeldt, Walker Evans, Albert Renger-Patzsch and August Sander. Their influence on the history of photography extends from the establishment of the “Dusseldorf School” into the present. “The main aim of our work is to show that the forms of our time are technical forms, although they did not develop from formal considerations. Just as medieval thought is manifested in the gothic cathedral, our era is revealed in technical buildings and apparatuses,” Bernd and Hilla Becher stated in a conversation from 2005.

The industrial landscapes can be read from historical and social perspectives, to an even greater extent than the familiar photographs of simple building typologies. Next to the monumental, industrial buildings one often sees residential constructions, gardens, and allotment gardens, which convey how intertwined the organization of life and work was at the time and how deeply rooted people were in this city-like structure. Photographed at waist-height, the broad, open views of the horizontally composed photographs have an aesthetic that is almost atypical of the Bechers. However, the images adhere systematically to the archival thinking of the artist couple.

The exhibition curated by Heinz Liesbrock was organized by the Josef Albers Museum Quadrat in Bottrop and presented there in 2010. Additional loans were provided by the SK Stiftung Kultur. The exhibition at Fotomuseum Winterthur is curated by Thomas Seelig.

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