I try to go to a few photographic exhibitions a year, normally in the North of England. But when I heard that The National Museum in Cardiff were exhibiting work by Bernd and Hilla Becher, I started to make plans for a trip as their work is rarely exhibited in the U.K. As an added bonus there was also an exhibition of Martin Parr’s work (which is always worth seeing) and August Sander whose work I was aware of but not that familiar with.
Bernd and Hilla Becher are probably the best known practitioners in the – admittedly small – industrial landscape photography genre. Bernd grew up in the Ruhr in West Germany, a highly industrialised area that had started to see irreversible change in the 1950’s as along established collieries and steelworks closed down. Keen to document this change he resorted to drawing and paint (he studied painting and typography at college) but found photography a better medium for his work. He met his future wife Hilla when they were both studying at university in Düsseldorf
The style of photography was methodical and highly planned. They used large view cameras and always shot the same angle from the same distance away under overcast skies. Their use of large format cameras was maybe a help and a hindrance to this – the quality of the prints from the negatives was superb and the adjustments allowed by the view camera lens ensured there were no converging verticals, however, carrying this setup around (they would shoot colliery winding gear from adjacent winding gears or other structures) must have been hard work.
As long term projects go, this one was right up there in terms of longevity. Bernd started photographing the industrial landscape of the Ruhr in the late 1950’s and continued right up until the late 1990’s. Their vast body of work was not limited to that area though. They travelled across Europe and America, and spent 6 months in the UK in the late 1960’s. Many of the photographs taken on that trip feature in this exhibition. The trip was funded by the Arts Council and they approached the National Coal Board for permission to access collieries in Wales. This was granted and a letter was issued to them which they were to show to colliery managers who would be required to give them access. Similar ones were presumably issued by other NCB regions.
Although they are best known for their typologies – groupings of aesthetically similar structures – they also photographed the wider industrial landscape which gave context to the structure they photographed.
Their work was deliberately objective, taken against neutral skies with diffuse sunlight to reduce shadows. It was notable that their work in the South Wales valleys differed from their work elsewhere as it was often impossible to get a blank sky due to the towering hills behind. It is this contrast to my own work that I have started to appreciate more over the last few years as although the basic intent behind their work is similar to mine, the execution of it is the polar opposite.
I’ve long had mixed feelings about the Becher’s work. I have a couple of their books (which can be very expensive unless you shop around and keep your eye on prices) and so am familiar with their work. The books – quite considerable tomes – cover the larger industrial landscape which is more the focus of my own photography. However I never really got my head round their typologies, the work they are best known for but which doesn’t feature in either of the books I own.
Seeing the typologies as large prints on the wall gave me a new appreciation for the work. The work featured in the exhibition was selected by Hilla before her death in 2015 and made me realise that their work was as much about the whole as it is the parts. I’ve long known the importance of sequencing images due to the work I’ve done on my RPS panels, exhibitions and books, and while this is a different slant on that, it does show that there is a skill to it.
Although there are 225 photographs on show, there are only 4 ‘single’ prints. I’d not seen any photographs of the exhibitions beforehand and did wonder how long it would take to look at 225 photographs, but as the overwhelming majority are in panels of prints, it did not take me all day! I found myself looking at the overall panel then walking closer to look at an individual image that caught my eye. The work isn’t really about the individual images it’s about the whole panel, and for me that was the key to appreciating the work beyond the historical aspect.
That said, Hilla had a huge body of work to choose from. Bernd was known to lament how much had already disappeared by the time he got going on the project, but the depth and breadth of their work was staggering and utterly impossible to replicate today. While the intent of the work was objective documentary, it is now considered as art, nostalgia, and as historical artefacts due to the global changes in the industrial landscape.
It was interesting – and no coincidence that the August Sander exhibition was on at the same time. Sanders project to document the people of Germany was a clear influence on the Bechers in terms of its scale (late 1910’s – 1950’s) and its categorisation of its subject matter.
So has my mind been changed? Absolutely. It has to be said though that seeing the photographs like this, i.e. printed large and on the wall, is absolutely the best way to appreciate them, but there books are a viable alternative. I don’t have the Bechers ‘Typologies’ book but it’s now on my wish list and I’m looking for a reasonably priced copy to add to my bookshelves.
Industrial Visions is on at the National Museum in Cardiff until the 1st March 2020. Entry is free. See more here.