New Topographics: Bernd and Hilla Becher

The most interesting segment in Contacts Vol. 3 profiles German industrial photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers shoot black and white large format photographs of heavy industry including coal mining, steel, and limestone. They were included in the pivotal New Topographics exhibit I've been exploring here. The layout of their images often focuses on typologies of buildings or equipment, including extraction towers, blast furnaces, cooling towers, heat recuperators, and coal mine tipples. The DIA has an excellent biographical essay. I'm just going to share a few interesting things I learned in the short film, which is a must see if you're interested in the Bechers.

Typologies

The classification of the images was done after a large amount of shooting had been completed. The first task was to define the basic forms. As time went on they started to see the varieties and sub-species of different types of industrial structures.

By classifying according to group, we brought out the tiny differences in each object....which resulted in a sort of harmony.

Technical notes

  • They started with Linhof 6x9 cameras in the late 50's, and later moved to 4x5.
  • Water towers were sometimes shot with a telephoto lens to avoid distortion.
  • Blast furnaces were sometimes shot with a wide angle lens.
  • Sometimes it was necessary to shoot in winter so that branches did not obscure the buildings.
  • The Bechers prefer to work on foggy days in order for the background to disappear.
  • Typical exposures on a cloudy day are f/32 or f/45 at 20 seconds.

Bernd on long exposures

It’s a lovely moment counting to 20. We’re very concentrated and oblivious to everyone.

Hilla on composition

For certain objects, it’s very simple. We compose the center of the shot, and keep a little of the surrounding environment….One thing is absolutely important. The horizon. How do you bring the horizon in? It must be below the 3/4 line of the object, so as not to interfere with the effect.

Print Size

Their first prints were 30x40cm (about 12x16"). Later their standard print size for single images became 50x60cm (about 20x24"). I saw a gallery show in Chelsea a few years back and it was hypnotizing to see this work on a bigger scale.

Books

There are quite a few beautiful books of the Bechers' photography. Unfortunately many of the older books are expensive and hard to find. Try powells.com or strandbooks.com for used copies. Last year MIT Press put out a scholarly guide called Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work. My favorite book was also issued by MIT Press in 2002, and is titled Industrial Landscapes.

Industrial Landscapes introduces a new aspect to the Bechers’ photography, one that will surprise connoisseurs of their work. Whereas their previously published works concentrated on isolated industrial objects, they now show huge industrial sites amid their natural surroundings. They move away from the objective, severe image to present slightly more narrative, interpretive images of the industrial environment as a whole.

Industrial Landscapes is definitely one of my top 10 desert island photography books -- highly recommended.

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