Bernd and Hilla Becher | Metropolitan Museum of Art

BY Stephanie Cash, September 29, 2022

Working together over four decades, Bernd and Hilla Becher created a visual archive of industrial structures teetering on the brink of obsolescence. First in their native Germany and then throughout western Europe and the U.S., they hauled their large-format view camera to factories, towns, and desolate sites to document the often-overlooked infrastructure of our modern lives. Their works serve as a sort of coda to the early 20th-century paintings and photos by Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, who captured similar scenes, but back when such industries were mighty and booming, and the structures depicted full of promise.

The Bechers are best known for their “typologies” – series of stark images of water towers, blast furnaces, grain silos, gas tanks, and other industrial structures arranged in groups or grids, many of which are on view through November 6 in this retrospective. The show also offers rare insight into their individual careers and the collaborative development of their style.

The couple met in 1957 at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, began collaborating in 1959, and married in 1961. Their similar interests are evident in their individual early works, represented in the show by Bernd’s exacting architectural drawings, a painting, and photo-collages, all of the same mine near his hometown, and by Hilla’s photographic studies of metal objects, leaves, and a shell, all with prescient hints of architecture and the seriality that would inform their work. Also included are sketches, travel journals, and photos of them at work and on the road in their VW bus. A video shot by their son, showing the couple clearing small trees and weeds from around a tower before photographing it, was restored for this exhibition.

Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, 1967-88. © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

Bernd (and Hilla, unofficially) taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf from 1976 to 1996. As founders of the so-called Dusseldorf school of photography, they were hugely influential for subsequent generations of artists, counting among their students Andreas GurskyCandida Höfer, and Thomas Struth. Their objective approach influenced many more artists, including Ed Ruscha, whose Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966) is equally deadpan.

The preponderance of images on view here are arranged by type in groups or grids. Like a page of yearbook photos, they are much the same but different. A pair of water towers, for example, demonstrates the persistence of design: one is wood, the other steel and concrete, yet the shape remains the same. Other groupings often show the same structure photographed in the round.

One of the show’s highlights is a grid, two rows of six photos each, of water towers shot between 1963 and 1980. The seductive forms – bulbous, spherical, skeletal, angular – were de facto; function was the main consideration, but their sculptural intrigue is unmistakable, a quality that ties together all their works.