Bernd & Hilla Becher – Basic Forms


Copyright 2009 Bernd und (and) Hilla Becher courtesy Schrimer/Mosel Verlag

After reviewing the catalog for the Becher’s exhibition at Museo Morandi, I found that I wanted to further explore Bernd and Hilla’s photographic body of work. Thus I acquired this book, Basic Forms of Industrial Buildings, published by Schrimer/Mosel Verlag in conjunction with the Becher’s Hasselblad Award in 2004. As an engineer, I feel an interesting connection with their photographic content.

The book has the singular images of the Becher’s work that I was interested in studying, but also provides photographs that are somewhat atypical for how I had come to think of their body of work. The Bechers had developed an exhibition style that is very similar in format to the Museo book,  referenced above. The photographs in the Museo book have a lot of similarity and consistency derived from the Becher’s tight editing process, but these are not the only photographs that they made at any one location and typographic subject.

The water towers on the New City City roof in 1978 was made early in their career as they continued to develop their stylistic approach. The front-on viewpoint with the main subject located dead center is clearly evident. I can easily discern the details of this wooden structure that probably has been long replaced. Where many of the Becher’s photographic compositions isolate their subject, this photograph includes many other water towers in the near vicinity. The repetition of those sculptural shapes within the frame of this photograph is wonderful, but unusual for the Becher’s body of work. I attribute that to the fact that most of the larger industrial subjects that they photograph are in fact in isolated locations. I think it is very hard to find two or three blast furnaces in close proximity.

Apparently the Becher’s also photographed the broader industrial landscapes where their subjects were located, either to provide a point of reference or to develop another topic that they were investigating. Eventually they must have discovered that the tighter compositions were more abstract and and created sculptural mass and space in appearance.

Thus the overview of the blast furnaceinYoungstown, Ohio, 1893, second photograph below, provides an interesting view point of the middle groundof this industrial landscape. It seems evident to me that this photograph is consistent with their progression towards abstracting the shapes and forms of the industrial buildings and fixtures. The shape, lines and mass of the primary blast furnace are clearly seen. The background horizon of the distant homes and railroad supply lines have become more abstract, while the details in the foreground of the activities and infrastructure to support the activities to make this blast furnace function are clearly defined. This photograph provides more of a touch of humanity, still an abstract presence of those who built and made this industrial process operate.

Occasionally the Bechers photographed the internal details of these industrial sites that they were provided access to, such as filter plant that resides within the larger production area in Belvall Luxembourg, 1996. I see again, how they positioned their camera’s location and subsequent created the image composition to islolate forms and analyze structure.

As an engineer, I appreciate the photographs of the form following function and that good industrial design can have aesthetic qualities. As a photographer, I enjoy the sculptural shapes and masses that they isolate and create. As a social observer, I find that even when form follows function, that different cultures and societies discover, develop and evolve different solutions, which is diversity and affirmation that there is usually more than one right answer.

The introduction by Susanne Lange is insightful and beautifully written. Although Lange wrote her doctoral thesis on Bernd & Hiller Beecher, this is an easily read and informative text, which provides a fairly complete overview of the Beecher’s methodologies and oeuvre.

The hardcover book with slipcover measures 7 x 9 3/4″ with 144 pages and 61 duo-tone plates and nicely printed and bound at ESB in Verona, Italy.




by Douglas Stockdale

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