Bernd and Hilla Becher
gigatos | May 27, 2022
Bernhard “Bernd” Becher († June 22, 2007 in Rostock) and Hilla Becher, née Wobeser, († October 10, 2015 in Düsseldorf), as a pair of artists, gained international renown as photographers with their black-and-white photographs of half-timbered houses and industrial buildings (such as pithead towers, blast furnaces, coal bunkers, factory halls, gasometers, grain silos, and complex industrial landscapes). They founded the well-known Düsseldorf School of Photography. After the death of Bernd Becher, Hilla Becher continued the photo-artistic work also with new works.
Bernd Becher came from a family of craftsmen in Siegen. His father owned a decorative painting business, where the son completed an apprenticeship from 1947 to 1950. After a subsequent stay in Italy, he studied free graphics with Karl Rössing at the State Academy of Fine Arts in Stuttgart from 1953 to 1956. In 1959 he moved to the Düsseldorf Art Academy, where he studied typography until 1961. Bernd Becher had already begun drawing and painting industrial monuments before his studies. At the same time, he collected contact prints of industrial buildings. For documentation purposes and as a model for drawings and paintings, he began taking photographs in 1957. Later, together with Hilla, he made collages of photographs and drawings to create purely photographic documentation. Bernd Becher and Hilla Wobeser met in 1957 in a Düsseldorf advertising agency. They married in 1961.
Hilla Becher came from an upper middle-class family in Potsdam. She began taking photographs as a child. Her mother, who had herself received training as a photographer at the Lette-Verein, supported her. Starting in 1951, Hilla completed a three-year apprenticeship at the renowned photo studio of Walter Eichgrün (1887-1957). Eichgrün had taken over the business from his father, the court photographer Ernst Eichgrün (1858-1925). Founded in 1890, the studio was considered an institution in Potsdam. It not only handled the usual portrait assignments, but was also involved in documenting the historic palace grounds and Potsdam”s cityscape in the early 1950s. “Hilla Becher”s responsibilities at the time included assisting with photographs of the palaces and gardens of Sanssouci. In this early work, she gained a sense for the extensive photographic development of architecture and sculpture in the landscape space in question, which was advantageous for her future work.” She cited August Sander as influential in her development. In 1954 she moved to Hamburg, where she worked as a photographer for an aerial photography company. In 1957, she found a job at Hubert Troost”s advertising agency (“Persil 59 – the best Persil ever”) in Düsseldorf, where she met not only her future husband, but also her future professor Walter Breker. In 1958 she applied to the Düsseldorf Art Academy with a portfolio of photographic works and was accepted. Together with Bernd Becher, she attended courses in commercial art with Walter Breker, who enabled her to set up the first photo workshop at the academy. From then on, the academy not only offered classes in painting techniques, printmaking, and woodworking or metalworking, but students could also familiarize themselves with the medium of photography.
Bernd Becher took over a professorship for photography at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1976, but the couple saw themselves as teaching together and cooperated closely in the training of students. They trained many photographic personalities who, as the “Becher School,” are today outstanding representatives of German photography from an international perspective. These include Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, Axel Hütte, Elger Esser, Götz Diergarten, Petra Wunderlich and Tata Ronkholz.
Central to the perception of the work became the Bechers” participation in documenta 5 in 1972, when they exhibited a series of industrial buildings in black and white that would become formative for their future photographs.Ileana Sonnabend discovered the Bechers” work for the United States and set up a first exhibition in her New York gallery in 1973. In 1973, photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher were presented in Paris. In 1984, the Bechers were represented at the exhibition “From Here – Two Months of New German Art in Düsseldorf,” curated by Kasper König, exclusively with a catalog contribution. “Pure” photography was rather rare in German contemporary art at that time, but this changed a few years later with the increased presence of the “Becher students” in gallery and museum exhibitions.
In addition to their photographic work, Bernd and Hilla Becher also became known for their campaign against the demolition of the Zollern II coal mine in Dortmund. In doing so, they provided an impetus for a different relationship to industrial buildings at a time when they were not yet understood as monuments to industrial culture and the declaration of shaft and blast furnace facilities as part of the world”s cultural heritage seemed hardly conceivable. Building on this, the Becher student Martin Rosswog documented in 1985
After both had their studio for many years in the Einbrunger Mühle in the north of Düsseldorf, at the beginning of the 21st century they moved their apartment and studio to a former school in the center of Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth, which had been converted into the Kaiserswerth Art Archive. In 2007, Bernd Becher died at the age of 75 during a difficult operation in a Rostock hospital. Hilla Becher died on October 10, 2015, after suffering a severe stroke in a Düsseldorf hospital.
Bernd and Hilla Becher began their joint photographic practice during their studies. They pursued the goal of documenting industrial buildings that were typical of their period of origin and often threatened with demolition. With the exception of their documentation of half-timbered buildings in the Siegerland region, they were always concerned with industrial production facilities and industrial buildings that were related to the production of goods. Characteristic of their approach are often “unwindings”, six, nine, twelve or more photographs of the same object in fixed differing angles. This resulted in “typologies” of industrial buildings.
The photographs were conceived in an emphatically objective manner. In their photographic technique, Bernd and Hilla Becher preferred central perspectives, freedom from distortion, an absence of people, and a cloudy soft sunlight. To ensure that details were also precisely reproduced, they used large-format cameras with a 13 × 18 cm format. The composition of the images makes the surface structures and the structure of the buildings, which are basically placed in the center, stand out strongly.
In their style, Bernd and Hilla Becher documented half-timbered houses in the Siegerland region, industrial plants in the Ruhr area, the Netherlands, Belgium, France (especially Lorraine), Great Britain (especially Wales) and the USA, but also water towers and gas tanks. Faced with the steel and coal crises of the 1970s and 1980s, they photographed many structures that shortly thereafter disappeared forever. Their work thus created a unique collection of industrial buildings in their diversity, as only a few individual examples have survived. Bernd and Hilla Becher coined the term “nomadic architecture” for industrial architecture, since the construction and demolition of these buildings follow the interests of capital exploitation and profit-making (quote: “Nomadic peoples leave no ruins.”). In this sense, the Bechers also saw themselves as archaeologists of industrial architecture. Their work was a search for traces and cultural anthropology at the same time.
The photographic work of Bernd and Hilla Becher is a series concept in the sense of New Objectivity. From the perspective of fine art, it was soon assigned to conceptual art. This resulted in recognition and fame far beyond photography. Through joint exhibitions with artists of Conceptual Art and Minimalism, first in the exhibition Prospect in Düsseldorf, the work was artistically recognized and soon appreciated internationally. This happened at a time when, especially in Europe, photography was not yet recognized as an artistic medium (unlike in the U.S., for example, Stephen Shore or William Eggleston).
Bernd and Hilla Becher participated in Documenta 5 (1972), Documenta 6 (1977), Documenta 7 (1982), and Documenta 11 (2002) in Kassel. Their works are represented in the leading European and American museums and in many private collections.
Every two years since 2020, the city of Düsseldorf has awarded the Bernd and Hilla Becher Prize for a lifetime achievement of 15,000 euros and a sponsorship prize of 5,000 euros. The first prizes were awarded to Evelyn Richter and the Englishman Theo Simpson.
Obituaries on the death of Bernd Becher