Bernd + Hilla Becher

Bernd + Hilla Becher

“We wanted to provide a viewpoint or rather a grammar for people to understand and compare different structures.”
— Bernd Becher

About the artists

Since 1957, husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher have traveled throughout Europe and North America taking black-and-white photographs of industrial architecture: water towers, coal silos, blast furnaces, lime kilns, grain elevators, preparation plants, oil refineries, and the like. They organize their photographs into series based exclusively on functional typologies or categories and arrange them into grids or rows. This serves both to highlight and reinforce the sculptural properties of the architecture—they have called the subjects of their photographs “anonymous sculptures”—the forms of which are primarily determined by function. Through this method the artists reveal the diverse structural and material variations found within specific kinds of edifices. The water towers comprising the sequence presented here, for example, are all constructed of metal, yet they differ vastly in form. Such differences are underscored by constants that prevail from series to series: the photographs are usually taken from the same angle, the light is evenly distributed, and the prints are identical in size. As professors at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the Bechers’ systematic, objective approach to subject matter significantly influenced a younger generation of artists including Elger Esser, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, Jörg Sasse, and Thomas Struth.

View + Discuss

Bernd and Hilla Becher (Bernd: b. 1931; Hilla: b. 1934)
Water Towers, 1980
Black-and-white photographs mounted on board, 61 7/8 x 49 7/8 inches (157 x 126.7 cm) overall
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York
Purchased with funds contributed by Donald Jonas, 81.2793

1. Name some things you notice about this work by Bernd and Hilla Becher. What are some things that are similar about the images? Different?

2. Describe how they have organized this work. What difference would it have made if they had used different size images or not arranged them in rows?

3. The Bechers often focus on architectural structures as the subject of their work. Name some examples of architectural structures you see everyday. What do you think the Bechers found interesting about these structures?

4. An important principle in architecture has been that a building/structure’s form follows its function. What do you think is meant by that? The title of this work is Water Towers. What is the function of a water tower? How does this function influence the shape or form of these towers?

5. In some ways, this work is a combination of different art forms—architecture, sculpture, and photography. How does each of these art forms relate to this work?

6. Look at the photographs. Describe the similarities between them. How are they different from each other?

7. The Bechers are also important professors of art. Let’s review an assignment they gave to their students and discuss how each of these steps relates to Water Towers.

  • Choose a subject that is plentiful or abundant, preferably a type of architecture. The subject should be something that relates to people rather than nature.
  • Make your work in the same way every time—if possible, have no clouds, focus on the front of the subject, and with no movement or emotion suggested
  • Make a large number of pictures that show different examples of the same subject

Why might an artist have such a specific way of doing things? Can you think of an example where following the same set of instructions or practicing over and over again has improved what you do (for example, shooting a basket, hitting a baseball, handwriting, swimming lessons)? The Bechers believe that this kind of practice is necessary for creating art as well.

Art Explorations

Taking into consideration some of the Bechers’ specifications, have students brainstorm a list of common objects or architectural structures that are visually interesting and readily available in their immediate surroundings or neighborhood (for example, manhole covers, hubcaps, fire hydrants, storefronts, doorways). Photograph them and arrange them in a grid-like fashion. What things are similar or different about their subject? How does its function relate to its form? What new discoveries have students made about their chosen subject as a result?

If cameras are not available, have students select a subject readily depicted in magazines or online and create a collage instead. Control the uniformity of size by using a photocopying machine.

Using a digital camera and computers, students can take turns constructing their own “typologies” with a simple layout program found in the Microsoft Office program Power Point, or using a more advanced program Adobe Photoshop. With Power Point, multiple images can be scanned and then imported into a grid. It will help to have the objects in the photographs the same approximate size. Students can also scan and crop the images so that they occupy the same amount of space within the frame of the composition.

Additional Resources

Andre, Carl. “A Note on Bernhard and Hilla Becher.” Artforum, Dec. 1972, pp. 59–61.

Becher, Bernd, and Hilla Becher. Water Towers. MIT Press, 1988.

Becher, Bernd, and Hilla Becher. Mineheads. MIT Press, 1997.

Becher, Bernd, and Hilla Becher. Industrial Landscapes. MIT Press, 2002.

Becher, Bernd, et al. Basic Forms. Te Neues Publishing Company, 1999.

Ziegler, Ulf Erdmann. “The Bechers’ Industrial Lexicon.” Art in America, June 2002, pp. 92–101, 140–43.

Vocabulary

ARCHITECTURE The art or science of designing and building structures, especially habitable structures. Typically classified as fine art, significant architectural structures are generally considered to have aesthetic value, are designed by architects, and constructed with skilled labor.

SCULPTURE A three-dimensional work of art created by carving, modeling, welding or assembly.

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