“I’ve always said that we are documenting the sacred buildings of Calvinism. Calvinism rejects all forms of art and therefore never developed its own architecture. The buildings we photograph originate directly from this purely economical thinking.” – Bernd Becher
“They were constructed with no consideration of so-called beauty and serve their functionality alone, which means that when they lose their function they are no longer entitled to exist, so they are torn down.” – Hilla Becher
Bernd Becher died last year, only about a year after I saw the retrospective held at the Hamburgher Bahnhof for his wife Hilla and him. The exhibition filled room after room with prints of similar and identical looking industrial buildings from Europe and the United States. The artists took the photos for over fifty years, and in doing so amassed an enormous collection of images. The overwhelming thing is, though, that often they manage to find shots of buildings that look almost identical, and shoot them in the exact same way, framing the shots in a mindblowingly memetic way. The exhibition instilled in me a bit of the panic that I feel at malls and Swap meets, and it effected my family even more severely.
I had been relieved to find that my visiting family was able to muster some interests in the work elsewhere in the museum. The drama of Beuys, Barney, Hirst and others had held their attention with some ease, but when we arrived at the sprawling Becher retrospective, the tension began to mount. I found myself being called upon to defend the relics of an obsessive 50 year practice of two artists. “Why did there have to be so many rooms of the same thing?” “What was the point of taking all of these?”
My obnoxious sophomoric critiques of the work:
I was at the time not a fan of photography, and these images, on their face, represented the worst of the images of dry formalism that photo practice and history brought to mind. I was also suspicious of the technique of super saturation. While undergrads, my friends and I made a “fortune teller,” the kind made out of folded paper that’s operated by four digits. It was a crit response generator, and among the stock, boring, hackneyed advice was “make more of them.” I was also angry at the prospect of artists making the same sort work for their entire career. The prospect that this was one of the few time-tested viable routes to building a sustainable practice was a nauseating prospect.
That being said, I felt that while in that museum with my family, it was my duty to defend all art. With the help of a vague and difficult-to-translate wall text, I cobbled something together about documentary photography and how they were seminal originators thereof or something.
I now am much more down with all sorts of photography, and am especially interested in the practices of certain Chicago photographers. Greg Stimac is my roommate and has a photo practice which bears family resemblances to that of the Bechers’. He travels across the US and collects images of people mowing their lawn, or bottles of piss that truckers have discarded that can be seen glowing at sunset, or people at shooting ranges, etc. He has multiple collections, they often involve subjects, and they are much smaller than the Bechers’ collection, but they perform similar tasks.
The Hasselblad Foundation, which awarded the Bechers the crazy prestigious Hasselblad Award (they also got golden lions and erasmus awards late in their careers) said that as the founders of what became known as the Becher school, Bernd and Hilla influenced “generations of documentary photographers and artists.” You’d think of this as a formal influence, and there was, as is visible in the work of Thomas Struth, among others. However, in an interview with Die Welt (http://www.signandsight.com/features/338.html) around the time of their retrospective, they describe their practice as a risky, lonely, adventurous rambling through places that no one would want to go. They describe being constantly accused of spying, taking photographs for the enemy. They talk of waiting weeks for the perfect light only to see buildings destroyed before it comes. They witnessed hope that they knew was unwarranted in town after town. These experiences, which for them are individually associated with nearly all of the identical-looking photographs, are where I locate the real kinship between Greg’s work and theirs. The role of the documentary photographer/artist/collector is noble in its scrambling dedication to maintaining memories, but it is often a bizarre transient existence that brings a sometimes unwanted understanding of the way are, and the way things are so homogeneous. What fascinates me now about both bodies of work is the performative endurance challenge that is required to orchestrate the archival rescue these images from the dustbin of history.
Hilla maintains that:
“When someone discovers something in their lives that really interests them, then they should be content with doing that – without having to go and lie on a beach once a year.”
I’m not sure how that relates to the above, but it struck me and I wanted to relay it. I had kindof stopped thinking about collection as a replacement for leisure activity, and I’m mulling that over now, on the eve of our class (sorry).
welt: retrospective interview w/ Cornelius Tittel