(7/55) Hilla Becher - photographer

"We wanted to provide a viewpoint or rather a grammar for people to understand and compare different structures.” — Bernd Becher 

 Hilla Becher

Hilla Becher  & Bernd Becher
So much of photography is concerned with novelty. With the new. The outrageous. The daring. And often with things, scenes, with manifestations of emotions that are outside of society's norms.

New technology makes it possible to accelerate this process, so that anyone, just about anywhere can share whatever they see with all of us.Without restraint. A world where one image is replaceable with another instantly. A world in which no single image has the power to make us stop and think and consider.

Back in 1968, when independent photography, at least in the UK, was just starting to assert itself, the photographer Raymond Moore was starting to sense the beginning of these trends.
He spoke of 'the present day culture of impermanence, fostering a look once and then throw away attitude'.

Which brings us to the work of Hilla Becher (born 1934) & Bernd Becher (1931 – 2007.)
The body of work they created  is the very opposite of dramatic. The images they created do not shout. Do not draw attention to themselves by the use of a particularly novel technique or because they depict unusual scenes . The photographs are about normal everyday objects. The photographs themselves are normal.

And yet they're not. It's part of their very subtle charm that as viewers we suppose they are normal. Plain. Not special. You need to look again at their photographs to unlock their very special uniqueness. To re-think what's 'normal'. To re-think your ideas about excitement and uniqueness in photography.

When I first saw some of these photographs some years ago, I had 2 immediate reactions.

1. That they were plainer than just about any other photographic serial works I'd ever seen before. 
 Just look at the plain skies in all the photographs below.
Overcast.Grey. Flat. The opposite of most traditional methods of architectural photography. 

Light is not used here to help model structural forms. To help reveal 3 dimensional form, but instead helps reveal intricate detail and the subtle weathering of materials including the flaking of surfaces.
The flat lighting also tends to accentuate the very subtle differences between the many series of nearly identical industrial buildings & structures. NOTE: I said nearly identical. The buildings, set in different locations are worn by weather & time differently. Something that's important to bare in mind when looking closely as some of the series below.

2. I wasn't sure if the photographs were meant to be ironic.That there wasn't some obscure game being played by Hilla & Bernd Becher with their audience. Something I'd missed perhaps.
I'd studied Walker Evans photographs for many years and was very aware of the very subtle way he used photography of often very plain buildings & landscapes to make ironic social commentary. 
Was the same conscious intent at work here? 

The work I'd seen made by the Becher's caused me to scratch my head more than once.Were they poking fun at photography? Making some kind of comment about the predilection of a literate photographic audience to wallow in what could be seen as somewhat superficial surface detail? And also to make assumptions about the reasons the photographers might have for focusing (literally) on man-made landscapes.

I don't know that my first reactions to these works is that relevant today to me. But it's possible as you're reading this, that some of these thoughts have gone through your mind too as you scan the photographs posted here (or elsewhere on the internet.)

That's OK. Differences in attitude are to be welcomed. And also differences in approach to the job of photographing the world around us.

The work of the Becher's seems to me, important for many reasons. Least of all, to allow us to re-examine how we might go about using the tools made available by photography to express ourselves. 

The Becher's photographs are an object lesson in reminding us that great art can often take simpler forms. That humbler subject matter need not necessarily mean a lack of ambition.

Lime kiln, Harlingen, Northern Holland, ca. 1900

Gas Tanks Gas Tanks, 1983-92

 Blast Furnaces 1980-88

All photographs copyright original copyright owners
All text copyright Nick Lloyd 2012
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