#265 – Book Review – The Industrial Landscape – Bernd and Hilla Becher

Zeche Concordia, Oberhausen (1967), Germany

I’ve heard a lot about the industrial photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher over the years, but from the work that I’d seen, I just couldn’t get excited about it. OK, I’ll be the first to admit that this field isn’t exciting in the same way that, say, motorsport photography is, but all the same, the books I’d seen were just lots of architectural studies of water towers and other structures. I never really understood their typological style of presenting their photographs, but maybe that’s a reflection in the lack of maturity in my tastes. From a technical perspective, they are excellent, and maybe they are interesting and useful from an architectural / historical perspective, but to my uneducated eye, they lacked any kind of imagination or creativity.

It was only later that I discovered that they had also published a book of industrial landscapes, imaginatively titled ‘Industrial Landscapes’. In this they appear to have taken a few steps back from their usual positions and taken in the wider landscape to give more context to the subject matter, and this style of photography reminds me of the work of John Davies.

 Ensley, Alabama (1982), USA

The book is quite a broad study, of traditional manufacturing areas in the USA, Germany, France, Britain, Belgium and Luxembourg. It would be interesting to see similar work done in the former Eastern Bloc, or in India, China and Brazil.

 Fforchaman Colliery, Rhondda Valley, South Wales (1966), UK

I found it interesting to note the different styles between countries, especially coal mines. Mines in the UK were pretty consistent in their functionality and lack of embellishment, but the designs of those in Continental Europe are many and varied. The inclusion of the rickety wooden mines in the USA is a comical contrast to the rest, and reminds me of some I’ve seen in photographs from China.

 Duisburg-Bruckhausen (1999)

The photographs in this book are different from the usual Becher images in that they’ve deliberately included other elements of the urban landscape, especially houses. I suppose industrial areas are all the same in that houses are built right up to industries, you only have to look at your archetypal northern street scene of rows of terraced housing with a large cotton mill and chimney, towering over. A steelworks is a somewhat different proposition though. Plate 94 of the Terre Rouge plant in Luxembourg takes this to extremes, with a gigantic conveyor crossing right over a row of houses, and the steel plant right across the road to the front. The residents are quite literally living in its shadow.

The body of work focuses heavily on steelworks, coalmines with smaller sections on dock warehouses, grain towers, gas holders and limekilns. This is very much an aesthetic study, and it is often about the juxtaposition of visually complex structures such as a bank of blast furnaces on the landscape. These are what held my attention, less so the grain towers, these images are more of a study of the structure itself, which while moderately interesting from an architectural perspective, are basically just images of the buildings. Their place in the landscape is maybe less interesting as they tend to be quite isolated structures, especially those in the flat, featureless American Midwest. There again, are these not missed opportunities to photograph them in that environment.

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (1986), USA 

I came away with a different perspective on the Becher’s after this book. I liken the images in this to informal environmental portraits, rather than the stiff posed studio-like portraits of the typological work. That’s not to detract from the rigour in which the Becher’s approached the landscape work, far from it, as they themselves said in the interview at the front of the book that landscape photos are more a composition than anything else.

A fascinating interview with the Bechers can be found here and another shorter one here.

Order the book from Amazon here: Industrial Landscapes

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2 thoughts on “#265 – Book Review – The Industrial Landscape – Bernd and Hilla Becher

  1. These photographs are fascinating. I must confess that I knew nothing of Bernd and Hilla Becher until I followed your link- thanks for that. I find their work intriguing…it makes me feel that I would have wanted to do exactly the same thing if I had been born in the forties and had been able to see more of the industry of the North West of England. I have to admit rather guiltily that I love their specific photos of gasometers and the like, I view them with a certain delight…the desire to categorise and collect, probably! The images in the blog here are very exciting, and I agree that it is perhaps a missed opportunity to not include the surrounding landscape and the effect of the structures on the locality. Anyway, these photos were a treat and thanks for introduciing me to the Bechers!

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    • While I’ve not really been terribly influenced by their work, I do admire them for their persistence and intent in recording the industrial landscape, although curiously, they didn’t like working with historians. It has to be said though, that their work is all very objective, I prefer my own style which tries to capture a bit more of the atmosphere of a place rather than just a straight record of what I saw.

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