Defunct water towers find themselves in conversation with fence-wrapped workers’ housing in Hilla and Bernd Becher’s somber assemblies of grayscale photographs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On display through November 6, the exhibition covers the 50-year joint career of the late-20th-century German photographer couple, as the first comprehensive, posthumous retrospective dedicated to their work. With a large-format camera, the artists captured relics of industrial architecture from blast furnaces to grain silos across North America and Europe; they then arranged the photos into gridded collections organized by building type (or “typologies”) that they called “anonymous sculptures.”
Bernd and Hilla Becher's Comparative Juxtaposition, Nine Objects, Each with a Different Function, 1961–72, on view at the Met. Photo © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
“We want to offer the audience a point of view, or rather a grammar, to understand and compare the different structures,” the Bechers once said in an interview, according to The Guardian. “Through photography, we try to arrange these shapes and render them comparable. To do so, the objects must be isolated from their context and freed from all association.”
A meditation on dilapidated vernacular architecture, the prints indeed offer a comparative analysis of structural form, while stylistically toeing the line between documentary and fine art photography. The photos—always in black and white, lacking human subjects, and featuring a backdrop of expressionless skies—have been likened to approaches found in both minimalism and conceptual art.
Bernd and Hilla Becher's (1) Winding Towers, 1967–88. (2) Water Tower, Verviers, Belgium, 1983. Photos © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Hilla (1934-2015), born in Potsdam as Hilla Wobeser, studied graphic and printing techniques; Bernd (1931–2007), born in Siegen, studied painting and typography. After meeting in 1957 at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where they would both later teach, the duo began collaborating in 1959 and married two years later. The couple’s first book, Anonymous Sculptures, published in 1970, systematically categorized and framed buildings—from kilns to blast furnaces—as found objects (reportedly in reference to Marcel Duchamp’s readymades). In 1990, Hilla and Bernd received a sculpture award at the Venice Biennale for their “ability to illustrate the sculptural properties of architecture,” according to The Tate. They received the Erasmus Prize in 2022 and the Hasselblad Award in 2004 for their work and teaching in photography.
As professors at the Kunstakademie, they served as mentors to the next generation of German photographers, including Candida Höfer, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth. Their austere, formalist photography has also been credited with influencing minimalist and conceptual artists like Ed Ruscha, Carl Andre, and Douglas Huebler.
Bernd and Hilla Becher's (3) Zeche Hannover, Bochum-Hordel, Ruhr Region, Germany, 1973. (4) Folder with notes on travel in the United States, 1987. Photos © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
“Our attitude was romantic; our images are not,” Hilla Becher once noted, according to The Guardian. “We tried to erase this feeling from our images. We didn’t want people to notice.”
The Met’s exhibition—the first to feature access to the duo’s full personal collection and vast archive—is accompanied by a comprehensive monograph, Bernd & Hilla Becher, by Jeff L. Rosenheim, the museum’s longtime curator of photographs. Alongside the pair’s collaborative work, the exhibition also includes works—from lithographs and collages to sketches and polaroids—that each artist created independently, before 1959.
Organized with Studio Bernd & Hilla Becher and the Cologne-based Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur foundation, the show will travel to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (from December of 2022 through April of 2023).
Bernd and Hilla Becher's Water Towers, 1967–80. Photo © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher, courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York