One wall is lined with photos of industrial cooling towers, depicted in extremely detailed black and white.
Another gives us 30 different views of blast furnaces, in factories in Western Europe and the United States. You can pretty much make out every bolt in their twisted piping.
An entire gallery surveys the vast Concordia coal-fired power plant in Oberhausen, Germany: teeming photos present its gas storage tanks, its “lean gas generator”, its “quenching tower”, its “coke pushers”.
These and something like 450 other images fill “Bernd & Hilla Becher,” a fascinating and frankly magnificent sight at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met’s curator of photography, Jeff Rosenheim, has curated an in-depth retrospective for the Bechers, a German couple who made some of the most influential fine art photography of the past half-century. Bernd (1931-2007) and Hilla (1934-2015) mentored generations of students throughout Kunstakademiewhose alumni include major photographic artists like Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer.
But for all the weight of heavy industry on the Met’s billboard – it’s easy to imagine the stench, smoke and din that hung over the Bechers as they worked – you leave with an overall sense of levity. , of delicious order, even sometimes of sweet comedy.
Wall after wall of checkered grays soothe the eye and calm the soul, like the orderly and luminous abstractions of Agnes Martin or Sol LeWitt. The very act of bringing together 16 different water towers, from both sides of the Atlantic, on a single museum wall helps to domesticate them, removing their industrial angst and original functions and turning them into something like curiosities or collectibles. A catalog essay refers to the Bechers’ “rigorous documentation of thousands of industrial structures”, which is accurate, but it is the rigor of a train spotter, not an engineer. Despite their concrete grandeur, assorted water towers seem slightly ridiculous: whether you collect cookie jars or vintage wines – or photos of water towers – it’s as much about our human instinct to hoard and collect. organize only real things. you collect.
Take into account 32 Campbell’s Soups (1962) which launched Andy Warhol’s Pop career, which is a vital precedent for the orderly seriality of the Bechers. You can read soups as a critical portrayal of American consumerism, but a catalog of canned soups also reads like a quiet joke, at least when presented for the art, not the shopping. Ditto, I think, for the famous “typologies” of industrial buildings of the Bechers, presented without any industrial aim.
Indeed, the only thing you don’t retain from the Becher show is a real knowledge of mechanical engineering, or coal processing, or steel manufacturing. When I was a student, I cut out and framed a wall of pictures from the Bechers’ glorious blast furnace picture book. (Their art has always existed as much in their books as it does in exhibits.) After living with my ovens for about a decade, I can’t say I could have passed a Smelting 101 quiz.
Early covers referred to the Bechers as “photographer-archaeologists” and the Met catalog explains how they revealed the “functional features of industrial structures”. There are certainly parallels between the supernatural clarity and unmediated “objectivity” of their images and the earlier, purely technical and scientific photos intended to teach the constructions and processes of industry. The Bechers admired these paintings. But as systematic as their own project may seem, its purpose was art, which means it was always bound to give free rein to function and meaning.
I think it is better to imagine that they cast a dubious glance at previous aspirations to the scientific and technical order. After all, the Bechers reached their peak as artists in the 1960s and early 1970s, just when any budding intellectual was reading “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn who showed how the sociology of science (who has power in the labs and who doesn’t) shapes what science tells us. French philosopher Roland Barthes had killed off the all-powerful author and left the rest of us to be the real meaning-makers, even if it left him unsettled. European societies were in turmoil in the face of the terrors of Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang, so brilliantly captured in the streaks and streaks by Gerhard Richter, that other German giant of post-war art. The Bechers worked in this world of unstable and troubling ideas. By reproducing the grammar of technical imagery, without achieving technical objectives, their photos seem to loosen the moorings of technology. Collecting water towers like someone else might collect cookie jars, they shrunk the industry down to size.
The Bechers weren’t the only artists to work on this seam. The conceptualists of their time also played with science and industry. When John Baldessari was photographed throw three balls in the air for them to form a straight line, he simulated experimentation, aiming for no real experimental result: The repeated toss and its failure was the point, not the straight line that could never form, anyway. When the Bechers’ friend Robert Smithson poured oceans of glue down a hill or threw dirt on a shed until its roof cracked, he was mimicking the movements of heroic construction, without aiming to build anything.
What set the Bechers apart from their peers was that they mimicked from within: they used the language of advanced photographic technology to inhabit the tech-savvy world they portrayed. Their photos are almost as constructed as any “lean gas generator” they might portray. The just-the-facts-madam objectivity of their images is achieved only by serious photographic artifice.
Take the Becher’s square photos of square workers’ houses. Several houses are photographed so close that, in front of them, one would never see all their facades at a single glance, as the Bechers do in their images. You need a wide-angle lens to enable this trick, and only if it’s fitted to the kind of technical camera whose bellows allow the lens and film to slide in opposite directions. This is how the Bechers manage to align our eyes with the upper step of a porch (we see it in profile) while catching the gables of the house, at the very top.
The view’s supernatural level of detail and its glorious range of grays and blacks require negatives the size of a man’s hand, a tripod as big as a sapling, lens filters and a technique of advanced darkroom. And the couple relied on such labor-intensive technology just when most of their fellow photographers, and millions of average people, had switched to cameras and film that allowed them to shoot on the fly, in lab-processed color. With the Bechers, the “defining moment” of 35mm photography is replaced by a gray-on-gray stasis that feels like it could go on forever – as if it were as still as the steel beams it represents. .
But in fact, these steel beams were more time-limited than the Bechers’ photos would suggest. “Just as medieval thought manifested itself in Gothic cathedrals, our era is revealed in technological equipment and buildings,” the Bechers said, but the era they revealed was not really the one in which they were working. In many cases, their factories and factories and mines were about to close when the Bechers brought them down – a few were already abandoned – as Western economies shifted to services, design and IT. The obsolescence of the Bechers’ technique corresponds to their subjects. Both represent a last-minute moment in the “industrial” revolution, which is why there’s something almost poignant about this show.
But one of his most telling moments involves a movie, not a photo, and it’s not even by the power couple. The young son of the Bechers, Max, who has since become a recognized artist in his own right, once captured his parents in moving colors as they set out to document silos in the American Midwest. Max filmed Bernd and Hilla unloading their heavy, Victorian-era gear from a classic 1960s Volkswagen motorhome. It was an absurdly underpowered machine, but one that could stand up to its colorful paint job or to its mod lines and styles?
To capture the full meaning and impact of Becher’s machine-age blacks and whites, you really have to see them through the windows of their information-age orange van.
Bernd & Hilla Becher
Until November 6 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, (212) 535-7710; metmuseum.org.