An Object Lesson In Objectivity
Bernd and Hilla Becher's work was on show at IMMA January, 1996.
Review by Pádraig Murphy
"Water-towers are high level tanks for water in the form of towers, which serve for storage and pressure control. They function on the principle of communicating pipes: the tank forms the highest point of the supply pipeline. The water is pumped through a supply pipe up to the highest water-level and the outlet pipe is fixed to the lower part of the tank."
A description of the precise function of the water-towers is given as text to accompany one of Bernd and Hilla Becher's books. This text is also indicative of their photographic practice; one which is based on the systematic recording of various industrial structures.
For over thirty years they have photographed, among others, coal mine heads, blast furnaces, cooling-towers, water-towers, winding-towers, grain elevators, gas-coolers, frame-work houses and industrial facades; a permanent archive in collective memory of a particular period in history. The motivation for this work was born out of a realisation that heavy industry was in the process of being replaced by modern technology, thus adding a sense of urgency to their desire to record what they considered the most interesting and unique architecture of the 19th and early 20th Centuries. This desire to photograph these structures was coupled with the need to create some kind of order to the work. Thus a particular philosophy was conceived in the late 50's, one which they have stuck to rigorously ever since.
It is based on a deep respect for the object, whereby the object should be first comprehended as just that, an object, and not as the subject of the photographers' artistic pretensions. The single object and its presentation is what is important: the resulting pictures are nearly always objective frontal recordings, the motif placed in the middle of the photo, devoid of any illumination and subsequently categorised, firstly according to function and secondly, according to similarity of structure into various typological series. A classification which emphasises the importance of the 'series' in conveying the artists' vision.
Thus in these images content rather than form is of the essence and yet, ironically, the very form of these objects is what often reveals their function.
The formal clarity of the work insures an elevation of the mundane, an insurance of new respect for such structures as works of art in their own right, a realisation that though functional, each one somehow shows vernacular idiosyncrasies, each one though similar is somehow different, each appreciated for what they are and what they do, each unique. However this uniqueness is often not enough; appreciation which is based on a functionality and objective presentation of such structures is perhaps too defined.
When viewing the Bechers' work, I cannot but recall the first time I saw a particular Walker Evans image, Corrugated Tin Facade Moundville Alabama (1936), better known as the Richard Perking shed picture. My first lesson in the objective recording of reality; like the Bechers, Evans realised that the very limitations of 'straight photography' was its golden goose or what John Szarkowski referred to as "the precise and lucid rendition of significant fact".
Evans believed in anonymity of style and that the "image is born of the subject (object) and not its treatment". Like the Bechers he turned his camera towards unrecognised structures of his own era, however unlike the Bechers he continued to develop photographic solutions to suit his needs in 35mm portrayal of the dynamism of the street, objective frontal portrayal of public monuments, wooden Negro churches in the south, child graves in Hale County, Alabama, a distant neutral look at tenant farmers in Hale County (Let us now praise famous men), a pursuit of the deconstruction of the photographic portrait through anonymous subway and labour images and his 'in your face' confrontational street images of women shoppers in Chicago in 1947. Twenty years of innovation, each stage a digression from his original belief, but still very much an anonymous signature.
The Bechers on the other hand, having gone against the aesthetics of visual abstraction and the emphasis on the future, both prevalent in Germany in the 50's, instead began to produce very concrete images which were somehow showing the present as it will appear in the past. That this has remained a life long project is indicative of their courage and utter conviction. A project so vast that it allowed them to find their feet as photographers but also insured that they would almost never step backwards or forwards again.
Corrugated Tin Facade, an image so simple, the artist anonymous, an up-front approach similar to the Bechers' work. The sun is shining, to the left of the shed lies some blocks, in the foreground a heap of earth, simple yet ultimately indefinable.
Definable; a quality intrinsic to the majority of the Becher images (this may be directly related to the structures whose form follows function). The industrial facades which, unlike the other industrial architectures, are forms which are not precisely defined by function and yet this definable character still exists.
Utilising the terminology of Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida the Stadium refers to the classical body of information that makes the image accessible, (in the Bechers' case its functionality). The Punctum is an arresting element that arises from the scene, an emotional implant that each viewer responds to subjectively. In the Bechers' case the Punctum is perhaps time: time which is present in these monumental structures and yet which is also attested to by the fragility and vulnerability of these structures. One could argue the same in the case of Evans, but the indefinable element remains. Is it just that the isolation of the image (unlike the Bechers' images), an element of uncertainty or has the photograph reached the highest state of objectivity possible and become an object truer to its spirit of the actual reality itself?
In the Becher photograph of a Winding-Tower, Tower Colliery South Wales, 1966, two old men are to be seen, one with his head stooped moves into the background, the other leaning against a coal trolley gazes after him; one of the few images weighed by the presence of man. A previsualisation or more likely an accident: Tower colliery was the first and only mine to be bought out by the miners in Britain in 1994. Having lost their mining jobs and nearly being disposed of themselves they took the reins into their own hands: a mine and community that didn't die in Wales as a consequence of Thatcherite Britain, one that doesn't exist solely in a Becher photograph. I now know for real, what Barthes described as Punctum.
This enduring methodology shown by the Bechers is not isolated in the history of German photography. Like Evans the Bechers were influenced by August Sander and the New Objectivity Movement of the 1920's.
August Sander set himself the daunting task of producing a photographic portrait of the German nation. He approached this task by adopting the stand of dispassionate recorder. His portraits stand as monuments in the history of photography, their gaze preventing them from ever becoming images of nostalgia to be confined to the past.
Albert Reiger-Patzsch a leading figure of the movement utilised the close up to record images of factory produced objects, free of subjective evidence and devoid of atmosphere. The Bechers' warmth for industrial architecture is also comparable to the work of Karl Blossfeldt. His love of nature and his belief in its power as well as his conviction that nature had already anticipated the best designs in Industry ensured a life long direct objective approach in his recording of flowers, stems, buds etc.
In the Bechers' Gas Holder, Jersey City, New Jersey USA 1980, a garage juts into the left side of the frame, a car moves as it parks in front of the Gas Holder. The uniformity of structures and images - the disruption caused by a blur. A magical moment at the end of viewing around 300 images, and yet the message is pervasive: all these images are distinct, the power of the camera to see what the human eye often misses. The phenomenon of looking without seeing, here we are now seeing; industrial structures that will never again be the same, having seen the images; a post modern dream comes through, seeing through photographs and no longer reality.
The Bechers' position within the development of German photography doesn't end with their work. Through teaching at the Dusseldorf academy they have inspired a number of new artists to carry on their basic conceptual approach, while at the same time introducing a more subjective and wider choice of photographic motif and less of a need for seriality. The fact that the Bechers' concept has been furthered and moved on to new areas perhaps justifies and verifies their conviction to adhere rigidly to a vision never wavering from their particular goal of creating a memory of industrial architecture.
As Hilla Becher remarked at a presentation at IMMA this desire to order and collect may be somehow "the need to find a destiny amongst all life's jumble".