Arriving at Tate Modern, I make my way into a labyrinth of galleries showing an exhibition entitled “Citizens and States”.
Pause for a moment to admire the simplicity and directness of Piet Mondrian‘s abstract yet simultaneously formal works involving primal colours and lines, geometric studies reflecting the mental activity of his time, the early 20’th Century when Modernism was being developed.
The gallery I want to see contains work by the Bechers; this is not the work that had originally drawn me yet seeing it here, displayed in groups of different typologies and surrounded by a great deal of white wall space, helps to emphasise the uniqueness of the work. This is work that does not rely on a strong sense of contrast for effect rather there is a much more even distribution of tones that emphasise the intricate detail these images contain.
Some Becher references …
Typologies is a book about their work that I see downstairs
Basic Forms is the book I go for; it is a more recent publication as well as much cheaper and seems better as a book about the Bechers as a whole.
Bernd and Hilla Becher were a couple, he died in 2007 and she some years later in october 2015, who photographed over 200 industrial plants in Europe and North America which they described as “anonymous sculptures”. Their work is characterised by the use of large format cameras, emphasis on detail and a flat neutrality which was ensured by photographing on overcast days. The presentation of their subjects in grid format references minimalism, seriality and conceptual art practices.
Often, in black and white photography, one is encouraged to create a print in which there is a full range of tones from deepest black to brightest white. However, the Bechers seem more concerned with the accurate representation of tones so while there is less drama, there is a greater sense of the real although in photography particularly with black and white representation, the real is always going to be surreal in nature.
These photographs are equally concerned with the historical significance of structures that are rapidly becoming obsolete yet also their formal qualities. The latter aspect is further emphasised by placing the photographs into groups to form grids that strike up dialogues between the different structures, furthering a sense of their uniqueness for they are all in fact different. While here is an aesthetic appeal to these images in the way they have been skilfully recorded, there is also a fascination enhanced by the manner of their presentation.
The Becher’s are an example of photography creating art rather than photography being used to make art; the uniqueness of the photograph is in evidence rather than mere use of the photographic medium. This is not an easy point to clarify but there is a difference between an accomplished photographer making art and an accomplished artist such as a painter or sculptor using a camera to make art! This exhibition can be enjoyed for the rich play of tones each image contains as well as the inherent melancholy of the subject matter for these are mostly structures whose days are limited.
It is difficult to say if I have a personal preference for any of these. The series of 9 curvaceous Watertowers (1972-2009) are simpler in appearance and hence easier to absorb than the three groups of 9 angular Winding Towers from Britain, Germany and France (see top); the set of 24 Blast Furnaces (1969 to 1995) (see above) are more intricate with each image showing a wealth of ingenious detail informing one of scenes one is never likely to have seen even when contemporary, scenes that help create an industrial sublime by their powerful size.
Other works on show here are Gas Tanks (1965-2009) and Coal Bunkers (1974). Seeing the Becher’s work here in this spacious uncluttered gallery is an eye opening experience quite different to seeing originals bunched up together in a reception area at Arles or the paucity of book reproductions which although impressive can never be as rich as the originals. I guess seeing this exhibition has to be “my Becher moment” though I have known of their existence for years.
Shortly before leaving, a group of over 50 uniformed school children walk through the gallery with barely a glance at the work; it is apparently not helpful criteria. They spend their time looking at large colour photographs from Malaysia, portraits in which the heads have disappeared into different forms of fruit morphed onto their heads.