Typologies. Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher. Edited and with
an introduction by Armin Zweite. 35 pages and 130 plates. The MIT
Press, 2004. $75.
Typologies is like a family photo album—a big book
whose square pages hold many small images, arranged thematically.
But here there are no vacation snapshots of the Grand Canyon at
sunset, no "I was there" photographs taken atop the Eiffel
Tower or the Great Wall of China. The subjects of these images are
industrial artifacts: water towers, gas tanks, mine hoists, lime
kilns, grain elevators, coal bunkers, blast furnaces. The photos are
arrayed 9 or 15 to the page, and they have a certain sameness to
them. No two objects are quite identical, but the family
resemblances are striking.
Bernd and Hilla Becher have been making these images in
collaboration for 45 years, starting in the mining and metalworking
districts of Germany and later roaming to other parts of Europe and
occasionally the United States. The genre of their work is art
photography; the prints are exhibited in galleries and discussed in
art journals. But the photos also serve to document elements of the
landscape that often go unnoticed and unappreciated. Although a few
kinds of man-made structures—lighthouses, old barns, covered
bridges—are considered picturesque and therefore come to adorn
calendars and travel-agency posters, most industrial artifacts are
ignored or deliberately concealed. Other photographers turn their
backs on the power line or the smokestack; the Bechers stare at
these objects steadily and straight on. In the introduction to this
volume Armin Zweite writes: "It is Bernd and Hilla Becher's
outstanding achievement, and it should not be underestimated, to
have directed our attention to something that we previously did not
notice or certainly did not perceive in the way it appears in the
Of course the Bechers were not the first to poke a lens into the
industrial landscape. Lewis Hine photographed steel mills and coal
mines, and Margaret Bourke-White did portraits of dams and bridges.
But the Bechers approach these technological landscapes with a
different aim and a different aesthetic. Where others seek out
dramatic lighting, angular perspective and scenes of action, the
Bechers choose to make their photographs on overcast days with flat,
shadowless, directionless light, and they place the camera in the
most neutral position possible, so that the structure is centered
and scaled to fill the frame. They adjust the lens board and bellows
of their view camera to preserve the rectilinearity of the
image: All of those upright tanks and towers have their sides
exactly parallel, never receding in perspective. Nothing
"happens" in these pictures; in particular, there are no
human figures visible. Here is how Zweite describes this depopulated
landscape (and note that these are to be taken as words of praise!):
What the Bechers' photographs show us is a world in
differentiated gray tones, a lifeless, abandoned, seemingly almost
artificial terrain, bereft of movement and yet often signaling the
flow of energy, sometimes chilly, often inaccessible, for the lay
viewer in many ways strange and in part with a distanced feel to it.
Several earlier collections of the Bechers's photos presented them
as individual images, one to a page, in the usual art-book manner.
The format of Typologies, with its catalogue-like arrays of
many small images, better suits the subject matter. Instead of
calling attention to the peculiarities of a single object, the
columns and rows invite a comparative examination, the way one might
peruse a collection of butterflies pinned to a wax tray.
Two disappointments: Unlike some of the earlier books, this one
offers no commentary explaining the function of the objects in the
photographs. Also, the artifacts chosen for display are all of a
certain age; the Bechers seem to have little interest in structures
built since about 1950. This last point may have a ready
explanation. Bernd Becher was born in the industrial Siegerland
region of Germany, and he reports that one motive for his
photography is "looking for places that resemble those where I
grew up." In other words, Typologies is even more like
the family photo album than one might first guess: However austere
and static these images may seem, there is nostalgia and
sentimentality in them.—Brian Hayes
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