By Blake Stimson & Thomas Struth, Artforum International, October 1, 2007
It is tempting to say that with the sad news of Bernd Becher’s death in June (2007) at age seventy-five we have seen the passing of an era. Curator Emma Dexter, writing in The Independent, memorialized the artist’s contribution by describing the photographic project Bernd and his wife and partner, Hilla, began a half century ago as a “portrait of a lost world, using a lost technology–the gelatin silver prints, the large format plate cameras are now a thing of the past,” so distant from our own glimmering postindustrial world and its snazzy new media that it “can never be repeated.”
Indeed, this characterization seems largely right. Beginning with Bernd’s first photographs of the Eisenhardter Tiefbau mine near his family home in Siegen, Germany, in 1957–the same year he and Hilla met while working at an advertising agency in Dusseldorf–the Bechers’ undertaking had something demonstrably melancholic about it. As he recounted regularly, Bernd initially turned to mines as a theme because they had fascinated him as a child and because those that he had grown up with started to disappear as the political and economic changes that culminated in the establishment of the European Economic Community put them out of business. His first artistic efforts involved drawing, but he quickly turned to photography when he could not keep pace with the rapid changes. So it is that the “lost world” Dexter speaks of–that is, the great industrial age of the West–was preserved and catalogued for us in the Becher archive during the very moment that the industry itself was moving elsewhere.
Bernd and Hilla began collaborating in 1959, and from the onset they understood their undertaking to be a form of engaging the past, even if sometimes they interpreted what this meant differently. Hilla, for example, has regularly referred to the nineteenth century’s scientific outlook and its fixation on systematic and encyclopedic approaches, citing in particular its affinity with their typological method. Bernd, on the other hand, was more inclined to offer personal and, on occasion, emotional accounts of his bond with the past. For instance, he described his experience of the demolition of the Eisenhardter Tiefbau mine as the “trigger for everything.” Having grown up with a blast furnace as a playground, “it is hardly surprising,” he explained, “that I was overcome with horror when I noticed that the world in which I was besotted was disappearing.”
This attachment to the past was often explained by the couple and others as a response to the trauma of war. “The war robbed us of the pleasure of looking at the past,” noted Hilla, who grew up in East Germany–it is this pleasure that the Bechers sought to renew. Their project allowed them to leapfrog backward over the horrors of Stalinism, Nazism, and even World War I, and to return to what Bernd called the “pragmatic English way of thinking” or the “soul of industrial thought.” Versions of this return seemed appealing to many after the war, of course, not just the Bechers, because, as Bernd put it, “it has absolutely nothing to do with ideology.” This same rationale gave rise to the neoliberalism of Friedrich von Hayek, Milton Friedman, and others–itself a manner of leapfrogging over the mass politics of the twentieth century to the free-market principles of the past–that has come to so influence the globalization we live with today.
That said, however, we might better appreciate and understand Bernd’s life and its legacy by taking his version of the past to be something greater than the reaction that rules today. More than anything else, after all, the Bechers’ attachment to the past seems out of sync with the newly global present in a way that the neoliberals’ return does not. The “soul of industrial thought,” as Bernd called it–that is, reason itself–has always meant more than the neoliberals have allowed. They are right, of course, that it has given us the cold calculus of the marketplace that frees us from ideology by allowing us to dream only of the bottom line. But that soul has also meant the heated deliberation and debate of the public sphere, where entrepreneurial or innovative thinking is applied not only to private gain but also to the critical exchange of ideas and values that dreams of commonwealth. Think of the industrial thought of Edouard Manet, say, or Georges Seurat, or Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, not to mention Karl Marx.
In this regard, the question we began with about the sad news of Bernd’s death as a sign of a time gone by might be all the more vital and pressing. With that possibility in mind, we might consider it a test for T. J. Clark’s grand 1999 claim that modernism is our antiquity. (This claim was misappropriated for Documenta 12, which asked, “Is modernity our antiquity?” to which Clark had already responded eight years ago: “This is not what my book title [Farewell to an Idea] means. On the contrary, it is just because the ‘modernity’ which modernism prophesied has finally arrived that the forms of representation it originally gave rise to are now unreadable.”) Put so, we might well ask whether the forms of representation that the Bechers have given us are now unreadable–do the desire and ambition and commitment of the Bechers’ fascination with industrial modernity carry today?
Raising such a question about the Bechers’ modernism may rub against the grain for some readers familiar with the pair’s work and its reception. At least since Carl Andre’s 1972 appreciation appeared in Artforum, their work has been strongly identified with American art of the 1960s. As close as they were to their American colleagues and friends, however, the Bechers themselves insisted that their “relationship with the methods of Concept Art”–that is, with the emotional distancing from the politics of the period that characterized much of Conceptualism and its antecedents–”was somewhat exaggerated.”
Indeed, while their work is cool and distant in tone (in a manner similar to that of Andre, Sol LeWitt, Douglas Huebler, Ed Ruscha, and others), it nevertheless registers differently on the level of affect. Narrowly and negatively speaking, the Bechers never engaged in a deadpan neutralization of their own subjective artistic perspective; neither did they have any concern for inventing ordering systems that seemed arbitrary or without purpose (in this way, for instance, their work is the opposite of Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations, 1962, and subsequent photographic books). For all the seeming neutrality of the Bechers’ photographs–the overcast lighting, the straight-on perspective, the consistent framing and consistency of function within a given series, the reduction of color to shades of gray–there is never any doubt that they were captivated by their subjects and enthralled with the process of collecting and organizing pictures of them. What emerges when we consider their project as a whole is not a sense of the arbitrariness of the systematic exercise of reason (which might seem to be the point of Ruscha’s ordering systems) but instead something like the attentiveness and pleasure of a love affair–and this doesn’t even take into consideration the tremendous devotion made plain by their fifty-year commitment!
This way of relating to the world is utterly ordinary–”Like someone who collects beer mats would find criteria through which they can be organized,” Hilla has said–but it is ordinary in the most modern of ways. It is the way “our culture has organized information and knowledge since the Enlightenment”–a way that we might say is now seemingly becoming a thing of the past. It would be too much to call their method of organization an obsession, but it is a way of exercising reason that realizes value through care, attention, and devotion to the object of concern. To use the words of Hegel scholar Stephen Houlgate about this old modern principle: “Love is … the form that reason takes in feeling.”
Love is an attitude toward an object, of course, but the object also assumes specific characteristics and qualities that are loved. It has often been noted that the Bechers’ photographs are composed like portraits, and the buildings addressed like human subjects. Bernd once observed that the structures before their camera “seemed to us like individuals,” each one with “a look of its own.” Hilla put it differently, focusing more on their method: “It can be compared to portraiture,” she said. “You have to show the skin and the structure. One tries to be honest and not cheat. It’s very easy to cheat and to make very glamorous pictures.” Their goal was to picture the objects they devoted themselves to in the right light–in other words, to see them in the way that they experienced them (even if that experience may have been somewhat different for each of them), and on some level this meant that they needed to endow industrial structures with human qualities.
Early on Bernd discovered that the elevated view required to address his and Hilla’s subjects straight on generated a particular structure of feeling, a particular form of humanization. “This is the height from which a blast furnace makes the strongest impression,” he said, because it gave him “the feeling of almost being inside it.” That feeling resulted in a successful picture, in his view, and was something he tried to reproduce in all the couple’s work. Experiencing blast furnaces, water towers, gasometers, mine heads, and the like anthropomorphically sounds a bit odd, perhaps, but less so if we consider how Bernd and Hilla thought of these structures as the cathedrals of the industrial age and remember how cathedrals themselves were often cast as figures for the body of Christ. The structure of feeling that emerged from the Bechers’ fifty-year relationship with their subjects was at once analytical and bodily, emotionally reserved and affectively attached, moving back and forth “between distance and proximity” (a phrase often used to describe their work).
It is this form of relating–”the form that reason takes in feeling” describes it neatly–that Bernd will be remembered for; or, at least, it should be. The question in the end, then, is what that way of relating to the world means now: Is the Bechers’ form of representation–a form that draws its imagination from the great modern affair with reason–now unreadable? Are modernism’s aims and convictions, its structure of feeling and sense of purpose, now lost to an unavailable past? What the Becher project represents more than anything else is that old dream of the public exercise of reason–collecting, ordering, sorting, inquiring, discriminating, above all caring, in order to form a proposition about the world–that modernism has always opposed to the liberal calculus of private gain. And it has done so with a degree of conviction that itself seems a thing of the past.
That conviction, however, would also seem to be legible in an enduring way to generations of audiences and a generation of extraordinarily successful students who have stuck remarkably close to the ways and means of their teachers. Bernd was an eminent teacher at the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, and both he and Hilla were influential mentors. It is difficult to predict how this rich legacy will endure, of course, but if it succeeds in carrying Bernd’s tenacious care for the “soul of industrial thought” forward into the future, then we might well come to remember him not as a melancholic figure of a time gone by but instead as a messenger from the past–even, we might risk, as a standard-bearer who succeeded in reminding us of modernism’s beleaguered promise against the surge of the neoliberals’ globalizing present.
Blake Stimson is the author of “The Pivot of the World: Photography and its Nation (MIT Press, 2006)”
BERND BECHER HAD A CONCERN. In an arresting mixture of wholehearted conviction and ironic humor, he was driven by an attempt to embrace both the stern results of historical circumstance and the inevitable need for human self-expression. Suffering from the urge of explanation, he believed it to be a healing strategy to develop and execute a catalogue of human inventions. Photographing not too vain, rather humble objects, designed by engineers who had to follow function before fashion, he believed in the moment of truth of representation: a starting point to think again about historic responsibility and represent it through artistic practice. Clear-sighted and passionate, Bernd Becher had trust in seeing things. He fought relentlessly for precision of detail, and his modes of depiction were weighed for their specific language and moral quality.
The cooperation and partnership with his wife, Hilla, like their work, is an obeisance to modesty and a disdain for the destructive strategies of power. Being a witness of their ingenuity of ideas about art and politics, economy and industrialization, literature and pop culture, one feels indebted and constantly inspired by their compassionate involvement with humankind. Their legacy of love for water towers, framework houses, and blast furnaces might be considered a better lasting guideline for our future than the increasing hypnosis of capitalist gadget frenzy. Where do people go who die? Will what they created expand its vibrancy over time? In which way can we reevaluate our understanding of progress?
Thomas Struth is an artist based in Dusseldorf.
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