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High precision industrial age souvenirs

On the eve of their Berlin retrospective, star photographer couple Bernd and Hilla Becher talk with Cornelius Tittel about their 50 years spent saving the industrial age from oblivion.

Editor's note: Bernd Becher passed away on 22 June 2007 in Rostock. We put this interview, published in September 2005, once more onto our homepage in his remembrance.

If against all expectations, Wim Wenders were to make another good film, set on dusty highways, in cheap motels and provincial coffee shops – these could be his heroes: two strangers in Alabama, sometime in the seventies, lovers, driven by one obsession. They've been waiting for the right light for weeks, just the right amount of cloud, to photograph the recently closed blast furnace at the local steelworks, just as they have photographed a hundred other blast furnaces before. It's a fight against the sun and the clock. In the evenings the man stands in a windowless shower room of a seedy five-dollar motel and develops the films while the woman prepares dinner on the gas stove. And again they'll have to wait for a day when the sun burns less mercilessly, a day, they fear, which could come too late.

The blast oven is up for demolition any day, only a lone trade unionist who they met the previous evening at the bar in "Logan's Roadgrill", seems still to have any hope. The government, a new investor, any one could step in at the last moment and save the region from decline. The strangers know better: the only thing that will remain are their pictures.

Bernd and Hilla Becher have taken thousands of them over the last 50 years. Photographs of winding towers and cooling towers, of silos, lime kilns and blast furnaces, of coal bunkers and gravel plants. They are the souvenirs of a world recently lost.

Winding towers © Bernd and Hilla Becher

When their retrospective "Typologien industrieller Bauten" (typologies of industrial buildings) opens in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin on Thursday, the speakers will talk about the formal rigour of the Becher oeuvre, they will present the pair as internationally celebrated pioneers of conceptual art, emphasise their influence on the following generation of photographers and last but not least, sing their praises as archaeologists of the industrial age. No mention will be made of the endless waiting, the narrow escapes, of the madness of their art. "Of course it was an adventure too", says Hilla Becher, helping her husband to half a slice of strawberry cake.

She's sitting in a kitchen the size of a classroom in her house in Dusseldorf, a 250-year-old former school in the district of Kaiserswerth. There's no reminders here of the picturesque beauty of the Rhine in front of the door. An industrial glass lift provides practicality and a shiny chrome espresso machine, coffee of appropriate blackness. And then they start telling the story of their first trip to the mining region of Belgium where they slept in their car in front of the factory gates. And about the mining families in Wales who took in the photographer couple like friends and shared their lives with them for weeks on end.

Every now and then on this rainy August afternoon, they flick through one of their books of photographs at their tree length kitchen table – as other people might flick through a family photo album. Even the sootiest of coal bunkers has a story associated with it. "Here" says Bernd Becher pointing to a blast furnace. "This was in West Virginia. The plant was due to be closed down, but the workers made a stand and decided to buy it together, which they did." Later, says Hilla they even made a film about the story. "I seem to remember, oh dear, that it had Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep in it."

Winding towers © Bernd and Hilla Becher

An early photograph reminds Hilla Becher primarily of the paranoid reaction of the Germans in the fifties and sixties, who suspected the married photographer couple of being enemy agents. "War thinking was still prevalent in those days. Every now and then someone would ring the police on the grounds of suspected espionage. People actually believed that we were researching targets for a military attack. Why else would anybody want to photograph winding towers?"

One question that remains open to this day is why a married couple would want to spend 50 years travelling through the most unattractive regions of Europe and the USA to photograph industrial plants. Why would anybody dedicate their entire life to one work which does not develop in any way - except to assimilate more towers, furnaces and bunkers?

That Bernd Becher grew up between half-timbered housed and collieries cannot be the only reason. Nor can the fact that as a young art student he documented the adventure playgrounds of his youth and discovered that he couldn't draw them as fast as they were being torn down. At some point the project became a life's work, vague early considerations turned into an artistic ideology.

Water towers © Bernd and Hilla Becher

"It's true" says Bernd Becher quietly. A serious illness has made him slower, but what he says is as concentrated as his work. "As time went by we developed a sort of ideology without ever formulating it as such. I've always said that we are documenting the sacred buildings of Calvinism. Calvinism rejects all forms of art and therefore never developed its own architecture. The buildings we photograph originate directly from this purely economical thinking."

"They were constructed with no consideration of so-called beauty and serve their functionality alone", adds his wife. "Which means that when they lose their function they are no longer entitled to exist, so they are torn down."

"You see", Bernd Becher says later, "we simply thought that we would be considerably poorer in Europe if we didn't have the sacred buildings of earlier epochs. It's still possible to experience the Gothic period, not to mention the Romantic. Only nothing remains of the industrial age. So we thought that our photos would give the viewer the chance to go back to a time that is gone forever." He says this with a little sigh, a little melancholy and unbelievable modesty. One cannot help but wonder at so much understatement and patience. When asked about the Golden Lion which they won at the 1991 Venice Biennale, in the category of sculpture of all things, Hilla Becher says "Well" and clears her throat. "They wanted to give us some sort of prize and photography had never been awarded anything before." Even the Erasmus Prize, 150,000 euros for their contribution to European culture – as artists as well as historians – did not get even have them jumping up and down. They were just "very pleased".

Winding towers © Bernd and Hilla Becher

But the best part was asking Bernd Becher at the end of this long afternoon how it felt, on top of everything else, to go down in art history as the most influential teacher since Baroque days. There is an embarrassed silence at the kitchen table in Dusseldorf. Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Candida Höfer or Thomas Struth – almost all of them German photographers, critics' darlings and auction recordbreakers – Becher taught them all at the Dusseldorf Art Academy between travels.

But their ultimate success shines on forever in connection with a name: "Becher students". A trademark term which gets curator and collector hearts beating faster – even if the "students" are well into their fifties, are professors themselves and exhibit in the MoMA. But doesn't he have one sentence at least to explain the collective success of his proteges – just a little one for the road?

Lengenfeld, Saxony © Bernd and Hilla Becher

Bernd Becher makes a small dismissive hand gesture, as if it was all so simple. "There was all sorts of talent there", he says. "The rest was coincidence. All we did was to turn back the time to a photography of precision which is superior to the human eye. Other art schools used to put the fear of God into their students by asking them 'Can you make a living out of that?' We wanted just the opposite and simply told them to make stuff first and then we'd go on from there. They could see how we'd made our way. Showing by doing, maybe that was it. What d'you say, Hilla?"

"Yes perhaps it really is that simple. When someone discovers something in their lives that really interests them, then they should be content with doing that – without having to go and lie on a beach once a year."


"Typologien industrieller Bauten" is showing at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin until January 8, 2006.

The article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on August 21, 2005

Cornelius Tittel is the cultural editor for Die Welt.
translation: lp.

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