grid of black and white photographs of water towers by Bernd and Hilla Becher
Water Towers 1967–80 Gelatin silver prints Each 15 7/8 x 12 3/16 in. (40.4 x 31 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Warner Communications Inc. Purchase Fund, 1980 (1980.1074a–p) © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

Exploring the Sculptural in Bernd and Hilla Becher’s Photographs

In a new retrospective, the German husband and wife duo’s images continue to ask questions about beauty, function, and form.

Modernism is a polarizing subject today: once rebellious and liberating, its regimented silhouettes resonate for many as commanding statures of exhausted utilitarianism and industrialist ideals. German husband and wife photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher’s serial images of commercial structures, such as gas tanks, coal mines, and grain silos, as well as homes of 20th century Europe and America open a new door for these concrete and metal constructions. Once built to store grain, turn wind into electricity, or shelter people, the structures are occasionally otherworldly—even monstrous—or sometimes humanoid. It is the couple’s lens that humanizes the plain industrial architecture that may in fact be difficult to see with emotion: Rusting cranes, crumbling blast furnaces, and mammoth water towers stand silent and grandiose, freed of function and allowed to become sculptural.

black and white photograph of massive industrial plant by Bernd and Hilla Becher
Zeche Hannover, Bochum-Hordel, Ruhr Region, Germany 1973 Gelatin silver print 24 × 20 in. (61 × 50.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Purchase, Vital Projects Fund Inc. Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2011 (2011.67) © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new namesake exhibition, on view through November 6, 2022, encapsulates Bernd and Hilla Becher’s fascination for their subject matter, and their urge to photograph what life provided them. Rather than lush Alpine hills or curvaceous bodies, the objects of this drive were steel and concrete emblems of a turning point in western history. Dilapidated by two world wars and fueled by an industrialist zeal, the landscape surrounding the couple was far from attractive to most photographers. A palatable kind of beauty did not make it into their frame—rather they peeled the outer layers of looking to recognize the veiled beauty of these overlooked structures. The Bechers’ images might require more patience to internalize than those by their contemporaries, but they promise poetry in repetition, geometry, and texture.

grid of black and white images of gravel plants by Bernd and Hilla Becher
Gravel Plants 1988–2001 Gelatin silver prints Each 15 15/16 x 12 3/8 in. (40.5 x 31.5 cm) Courtesy The Walther Collection © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

Touring the show, which opens with a 1983-dated singular image of a bulbous water tower from Verviers, Belgium, each black and white series’ grid formation yields their own architectural rhythms, enveloping the viewer with a hallucinating experience of geometry, form, and seriality. In this sense, the photographs are micro pods of Modernist architectural forms, orchestrated into macro juxtapositions of Minimalist rhythm within their grid compositions. In the context of a large retrospective in which adjacent walls hold variations of these grids, the work feels Conceptualist and of the present. 

The late couple’s first American retrospective since 1974, the expansive show includes over 200 of their artworks and one work each from their close friends Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt who were similarly committed to revealing geometry through repetition. Six categories break down the couple’s five-decade career, such as Framework Houses which assumes the triangular form of mid-century German housing format or Zeche Concordia, dedicated to images of a coal mine in northwestern Germany, which the couple continued to photograph for three years in the late 1960s. Of these categories, Typologies embody their grand oeuvre of industrialist architecture photography which led them to win the Golden Lion at the 44th Venice Biennale in 1990. Interestingly, the prestigious award was not handed to the artists, who were also professors at the Dusseldorf School of Photography, for their work in photography, but rather for their contribution to sculpture.

grid of black and white images of blast furnaces by Bernd and Hilla Becher
Blast Furnaces 1969–93 Gelatin silver prints Each 15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5 cm) The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

The Bechers used a large-format view camera and shot their subjects during cloudy days to avoid extreme shadows on the facades. A fifteen-frame gelatin silver print series, titled Water Towers (New York, United States) (1978-79), shows water tanks perched on New York rooftops, symbols of American urbanism and even popular culture. The other fifteen images in Grain Elevators (United States, Germany, and France) (1982-2002) are united not in their geography but rather in their cylindrical form—all erected with a rounded heft, silos are elegant and bodily, unexpectedly bridging architecture with sculpture.

Bernd and Hilla Becher is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through November 6, 2022.

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