Water Towers 1972–2009 comprises nine gelatin silver print photographs taken by Bernd and Hilla Becher over a period of more than thirty years and printed in 2013 under the supervision of Hilla Becher. The prints are arranged in three rows of three. Although they exist in an edition of five, the grouping and sequencing of the images in this particular work is unique, determined by Hilla Becher. Typical of the Bechers’ work, the photographs show different examples of a specific type of industrial architecture, in this case water towers. The photographs were taken across a number of years and in different locations across Europe and the United States.
In addition to water towers, the Bechers created a number of similar ‘typologies’ of industrial architecture, including Gas Tanks 1965–2009 (Tate P81237), Blast Furnaces 1969–95 (Tate P81236) and Winding Towers (Britain) 1966–97 (Tate P81239). Each of these typologies gathers work from across a number of decades, reflecting the consistency with which the Bechers worked from the start of their collaboration in 1959. Since Bernd Becher’s death in 2007, Hilla Becher has continued the project independently. Together they photographed in excess of two hundred industrial plants and buildings in mainland Europe (predominantly Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg) and – from the mid-1960s – the United Kingdom and North America. Each time, they created a thorough photographic record of the architecture and site to cumulatively result in what they once described as ‘a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes’ (quoted in Stimson 2004). In 1966 a British Council grant enabled the couple to undertake their first significant project in Britain, where they visited all the major industrial areas and spent three months photographing in South Wales. Images from this trip are represented in Winding Towers (Britain).
To achieve the ‘perfect chain’ described by the Bechers, each photograph was produced following exactly the same setup, using a large-format camera positioned to capture the form from one of three distinct perspectives (as a detail, in the context of its surroundings, or in its entirety) so as to take up the whole frame of the picture. The flat, neutral quality of the prints was achieved by working in shadowless lighting conditions. Working within these parameters allowed the artists to make consistent groups of ‘types’ irrespective of when the images were taken. An initial classification was made according to the function of the architectural structure being photographed. This was then subdivided according to the materials used in the structure. Finally, the structures were grouped according to shared characteristics. Bernd Becher described in an interview in 1959 how ‘you can lay the photos alongside one another and realise what they have in common, what is specific to the basic form of a blast furnace or a cooling tower and what is individual variation’ (quoted in Lange 2007, p.188).
Bernd and Hilla Becher met at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1957 where they were studying typography and graphic and printing techniques respectively. From the outset of their collaboration two years later, they drew on the formal traditions of early industrial architectural photography by practitioners such as Charles Marville (1813–1879) and Richard Gessner (1894–1989) to undertake a systematic recording of the industrial architecture of the western world. In 1970 they termed their subjects ‘anonymous sculptures’; structures that silently dominate the landscape in which they stand, their form and function implicitly bound up with the geography and economy specific to that region. Although their work is often discussed in terms of creating a record of a disappearing landscape, they have stated that ‘right from the outset we have likewise photographed very newly built plants … And it is simply not true that we are only interested in “antiquities”’ (quoted in Lange 2007, p.188).
In the 1950s and early 1960s the Bechers’ unmediated, dispassionate approach and taxonomical mode of presentation stood in stark contrast to the pictorialist aesthetic dominant in photography at the time, instead drawing on the attitudes of the interwar avant-garde movement Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and its photographic practitioners such as August Sander, Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt. In the later 1960s and into the 1970s, however, certain readings of the Bechers’ work found a synthesis between elements of their practice and the concerns of the contemporary artistic avant-garde that existed beyond the realms of photography, such as minimalism’s emphasis on functionalism and purity of form, and the application of seriality and repetition that was central to much conceptual art.
However, whereas conceptualism equated photographic production with ‘de-skilling’, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s meticulous approach to their subject matter made technique of primary importance. In 1989 they described their attitude as follows:
The particular strength of photography lies in an absolutely realistic recording of the world. This sets it apart from all other image media; photography can do this better than anything else. And the more precisely it depicts objects the stronger its magical effect on the observer.
(Quoted in Lange 2007, p.189.)
In aligning the photographic with broader practices in contemporary art without surrendering craftsmanship, the Bechers’ position had a transformative effect on attitudes to photography within the context of fine art as a whole. This is something that continues to be felt not only in the impact of their own work but also in that of the students Bernd Becher taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Fördertürme, Munich 1997.
Blake Stimson, ‘The Photographic Comportment of Bernd and Hilla Becher’, Tate Papers, no.1, April 2004, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/01/photographic-comportment-of-bernd-and-hilla-becher, accessed 28 April 2016.
Susanne Lange, Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work, trans. by Jeremy Gaines, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2007.