How the Bechers made the boring beautiful

A look at the industrial landscapes of the duo who inspired Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth


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Photographers like to document, catalogue and analyse and there is no better example of this than the German collaborative artists Bernd and Hilla Becher. For over 40 years - until Bernd's death in 2007 - all kinds of industrial architecture from water towers, warehouses, blast furnaces, gas tanks and half-timbered houses came under their scrutinising eye. 

Meeting as painting students in Dusseldorf in 1957 they began collaborating on photographing the disappearing German industrial landscape concentrating, at first, on the Ruhr where Bernd's family had worked in the steel and mining industries. They were fascinated by the shapes and attracted to the high design ideals of the buildings they photographed, calling them "anonymous sculptures". With an 8x10inch view camera they photographed the buildings from a number of different angles but always with a straightforward objective point of view. They photographed only on overcast days and early in the morning to avoid shadows. 

At each site they would shoot overviews of the surrounding landscape to show the structures in their context and how each building related to another. Their first project, Framework Houses took close to two decades to complete. In drawing attention to such architecture they helped in many cases to preserve it. The Art Deco Zollern Coal Mine in the Ruhr was designated a protected landmark following publication of their photographs. 

They exhibited the photos in strict formation, grouped by subject, in a grid of six, nine or 15 images and used the word 'typology' to describe these ordered sets of photographs. Titles were brief to the point of being almost non-existent and captions noted only time and place.

Towards the end of his life Bernd began teaching at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf where his students included Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Ruff and Elger Esser. As well as inspiring and influencing these and countless other photographers (Stephen Shore worked with Bernd on his first solo show at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf and subsequently took to making an inventory of American life in his series' American Surfaces and Uncommon Places) - their work also had a big impact on Minimalism and Conceptual Art.

Their Mines and Mills series is currently on show at one of Phaidon's favourite photographic establishments, Fotomuseum in Winterthur, just outside Zurich until February 12, 2012. If you can't make it along we hope you'll enjoy our gallery of images from the show.


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