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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Something More than Just Typologies

Included in the retrospective of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s work at the Centre Pompidou is a photograph of Bernd taking a photograph. “How unlike them,” I thought, “to lift the curtain and show their process.”

Why the image was included, I can’t say, but it was interesting to see. Standing on a ladder to reach a large-format camera mounted atop a gigantic tripod, Bernd shows just how much effort goes into capturing each one of the couple’s signature images. This is no point and shoot, decisive moment type stuff. For the Bechers there are locations to scout, pieces of gear to lug, cameras to configure, and backgrounds to neutralize by waiting for just the right lighting conditions to arrive.

And that’s only part of the project. Once the image is captured, there are the archival and analytical functions that need to be performed. When it’s at its best, the Bechers’ work has the dispassionate, distanced rigor that archivists and certain historians bring to their work, a rigor developed through years spent analyzing the details of some arcane subject matter.

Best known for the typologies of industrial forms they have been creating for decades now, the Bechers’ work tends to be coldly analytic. That’s not to say that the work is without conceptual or formal interest because it has both in quantities to spare.

This show presents an encyclopedic overview of the couple’s work and includes multiple examples of most, if not all, of their major typologies. The winding towers, gas tanks, lime kilns, water towers, blast furnaces, and cooling towers are all here in well-known and newly assembled groupings of images. Also included are examples of some lesser known typologies: gravel plants, grain silos, and industrial halls.

The typologies have an emotional distance that leads viewers to focus on the formal details of the structures instead of thinking through the work in a narrative manner. Also included in the retrospective, however, are single image works that engage the viewer in a different way, in a way that is more amenable to the use of narrative as a strategy for understanding the work.

Set dead in the center of the circular gallery installation is a large room documenting the industrial landscapes from which the Bechers have snatched their images. These photographs, not their best known work, show the siting of the structures they have spent years documenting, often allowing the structures to be viewed in the context of both the natural and social worlds in which they actual exist.

When viewing the typologies, people tend to focus on the structures’ formal elements and forget that they were created by people to serve a human purpose. The industrial landscapes remind us that these structures are not abstract sculptures but instead have provided employment for thousands of people, have processed raw materials harvested or stripped from the earth, and—in the process—have contributed to current levels of pollution and global warming.

Also contained within this central gallery (actually situated as a separate installation in the center of the gallery—the inner room of the inner room) are prints from the Bechers’ project to document the company town that was built up around the Zollern 2 Mine in Dortmund-Bövingshausen, Germany.

This town, built at the height of the industrial era, was threatened with destruction in the 1970s. In response, the Bechers and others set about documenting the architecture and design of the buildings surrounding the mine to demonstrate the historical significance and cultural value of the place. Their work resulted in a 1977 book of photographs called Zeche Zollern 2. As a result of these efforts, the town today is a museum devoted to the industrial and social history of the area.

This gallery, and the two projects that it presents, demonstrate the personal, human nature that underlies but remains hidden in most of the Bechers’ work. Human ingenuity, after all, designed the industrial structures of their typologies, and human lives powered and benefited from the structures’ existence. While we may find ourselves forgetting that when we view the typologies, it’s clear that the Bechers haven’t.

“Bernd and Hilla Becher” is on view at the Centre Pompidou through January 3, 2005.

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