The Photographer Couple Who Turned Industrial Architecture into Fine Art
In 1966, German photographers Hilla and Bernd Becher set out in a Volkswagen for six months to photograph the monolithic architecture of coal mines in England and South Wales. In tow was their toddler, Max; their large-format camera; and a darkroom housed in a caravan. The couple had married five years earlier, beginning a four-decade-long partnership from which an entire school of photography would develop, hallmarked by its deadpan, studious view of the world and often rigorous sets of rules.
Influenced by Bernd’s experience studying typography as a student at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, he and Hilla translated its language to that of industrial buildings. Meticulously arranged in grids of 9, 12, or 15 images, which they called “typologies,” the piping on blast furnaces could stand in for serifs, the dreary gray skies surrounding each building its kerning.
Together, Hilla and Bernd documented the disappearing markers of industry across Europe and North America, including water towers, factory buildings, gas tanks, and silos. Each “typology” featured the same kind of building, shot from the same distance and under identical conditions, with no people in the frame. Viewed together, the nuanced commonalities and differences began to form a kind of syntax specific to each type of structure.
When the Bechers exhibited their austere, catalog-like grids of photographs, critics often questioned their potential as art. That disapproval continued even as their international profile grew. In 1997, famed critic Hilton Kramer of the New York Times wrote, “The pictures themselves are not intended to exert an aesthetic appeal, and in fact they have no aesthetic appeal.”
However, such dismissal didn’t irk the Bechers. According to Hilla, the couple always viewed their practice less as an art and more of a science, documenting and comparing different versions of the same species, as in a natural history book. Though critical reviews bolstered their outsider status, their broader impact on photography and their art market popularity have since proven early detractors wrong.
Hilla, born Hilla Wobeser, and Bernd, short for Bernhard, were born in Germany in the 1930s, growing up under the shadow of World War II. Architecture had a magnetic appeal to both of them from an early age. While mentoring under photographer Walter Eichgrün in Potsdam, Hilla’s first subjects were local buildings. Meanwhile, in the once-industrial iron-ore mining region of Siegerland, a young Bernd grew up playing on the grounds of a blast furnace. One of his first photographs was a vast iron ore mine near his home in Siegen.
As Bernd came of age in post-war Germany, the industrial architecture that dotted the landscape in Siegerland began to be torn down. According to The Guardian, Bernd once recounted the loss in an interview: “[I] was overcome with horror when I noticed that the world in which I was besotted was disappearing.” He knew that soon, across Europe and elsewhere, these buildings would be abandoned, demolished, and eventually fade from collective memory.
The passage of time, marked by the fall of these buildings, became Bernd’s focus with Hilla when they met in Düsseldorf in 1957. He was a student in the city’s Kunstakademie, while she was an assistant for a commercial photography studio (Hilla later enrolled in the school as well).
“At the time he was not a photographer, but an artist with a brush or pencil,” Hilla told the British Journal of Photography (BJP) in 2015. “He only used photography once in a while, because his subjects were disappearing and he wasn’t fast enough to record them. He started making photo-montages, but they were quite messy, I must say.…Finally he gave up drawing these things. He was too much of a perfectionist.”
Together, they combined their strengths and began exploring serial photography. Though their images were decidedly impassive, their feelings toward their subjects were anything but. They began in Bernd’s hometown, with mines and steel factories, but eventually their travels took them to the Netherlands, France, the U.K., and across the pond, to the U.S.
“What we were interested in were the visual and the sculptural aspects of the structures,” Hilla once explained. “And because these types of purpose-built structures can’t be preserved forever, we wanted to at least hold them fast in pictures, and so we began to collect them. Photography basically means nothing more than collecting.”
Their interest in architecture as a form of sculpture—the concrete forms of towers erupting in planes and curves toward the sky—became central to their practice. The works exhibited in their 1969 solo show (and accompanying 1970 photo book) “Anonymous Sculptures”considered each form photographed to be a found object—not unlike Marcel Duchamp’s Dada readymades. In 1990, the Venice Biennale acknowledged the cultural importance this body of work had in demonstrating architecture as art with an award in sculpture.
A new school
The Bechers’ photography was quietly rebellious, strictly adhering to their own rules and unbending to expectations of what photography should be. To the Bechers, photographic art didn’t have to be overtly expressive—instead, it could be ordered based on a personal system of rules. From 1976 to 1996, Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where the Bechers’s approach informed and had tremendous impact on Andreas Gursky’s hyper-detailed, vast consumerist landscapes, Candida Höfer’s airy interiors of libraries and opera houses, and Thomas Ruff’s unsentimental sequences of portraits taken in identical bare conditions. Their influence there was so pervasive, it eventually came to be known as “the Becher School.”
Artists outside of their classrooms tapped into their ideologies as well. Ed Ruscha’s seminal book Thirtyfour Parking Lots in Los Angeles (1967) became an exemplary model of serial photography, while Stephen Shore’s Uncommon Places (1982) examined the mundane of Americana with a deadpan gaze. Both the Bechers and Shore were included in the formative 1975 exhibition “New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape” at Rochester’s George Eastman Museum, eschewing traditionally beautiful views of the land for unromanticized and often overlooked urban and industrial scenes.
The Bechers continue to have an impact on photography, even posthumously—Bernd passed away at age 75 in 2007 and Hilla at age 81 in 2015. Retrospectives have been held by the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2004 and the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2008, as well as a major show by Hauser & Wirth, co-curated by their son Max and organized with Olivier Renaud-Clément, in 2017. The Bechers’ works regularly fetch two to three times their estimates at auction; their most expensive lots include a grid of 15 towers that brought in $441,144 at Christie’s London in 2019, and a grid of 9 water towers that closed at $441,940 at Sotheby’s Paris in 2015.
Hilla and Bernd didn’t often comment on their personal lives, but their partnership had an extraordinary impact on the art world. In 2015, during Hilla’s interview with the BJP, she mused on what she would tell her younger, 23-year-old self as she met her future husband for the first time. “Be careful,” she said, smiling. “He wasn’t that easy. Bernd was a little crazy.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article stated that Bernd grew up in the coal-mining region of Ruhr valley; he was born in Siegen, which is in Siegerland region. In Siegerland, they mined iron-ore, not coal. Additionally, only Bernd taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, not Bernd and Hilla as previously stated.