Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Bernd and Hilla Becher (Bernd, German, 1931–2007; Hilla, German, b. 1934)

Cooling Towers, 1983

Gelatin silver prints

Twelve parts, each: 20 x 16 in. (50.8 x 40.6 cm)

Gerald S. Elliott Collection

Since the late 1950s, the husband-and-wife team Bernd and Hilla Becher have been traveling throughout Germany, Holland, France, and North America documenting, in serial photographs, no longer functional nineteenth-century industrial structures. Their highly objective photographs are grouped in sets according to the purpose of the structure. The images are evenly lit without emphasis, and exhibited, as it were, without comment. In the 1950s their work appeared in startling opposition to the expressionist tradition that was generally associated with the German national output, but by the 1970s their work had made a lasting impact on contemporary art by helping to establish the importance of photography for German Conceptual Art.

The Bechers have documented blast furnaces, water towers, grain silos, oil refineries, and Cooling Towers (1983) reproduced here, as well as other industrial structures. Each image is enlarged or reduced to create comparable uniformity of size, and framed in grid structures that draw attention to the sculptural rather than the architectural monumentality of the forms. The Bechers, in fact, call their work “anonymous sculptures” and, in many ways, it is similar to that of the American Minimalist sculptors, such as Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Carl Andre, who tried to reduce the art object to its simplest and most striking form.

Although their photographs can be read in opposition of classic art photography’s concerns with self-expression, the origins of the Bechers’ use of serial documentation can be traced back to the systematic, “objective” records of botanical and human life by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographers August Sanders, Karl Blossfeldt, and Albert Renger-Platszch. The apparently obsolete nature of the Bechers’ subject matter, however, glances backward in time, as if to take a second politically savvy look at the industrial buildings of the Victorian age that originally informed the obsessive desire to categorize and document: botany, biology, and especially ethnology.

The very absence of the human beings that created and owned, or even populated the structures recorded by the Bechers contrasts sharply with the portraitlike intensity of the photographs. This intensity creates characters or personae out of the buildings: they seem to have faces or bodies, albeit “dysfunctional” ones. In contrast to this architectural “humanity,” however, is the seriality of the work: the very repetition of Cooling Towers undercuts the value of each individual image and ultimately acts as a sort of refutation of the notion that photography can represent a recognizable reality.

The Bechers have been enormously influential. They have taught many illustrious students including Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, and Andreas Gursky, all also represented in the MCA Collection.