Bernd und Hilla Becher (1931–2007, 1934–2015)
The artists Bernd and Hilla Becher have been linked in cooperation with Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur for more than ten years. The purpose of that cooperation is to document and inventorize the photographic archive that the Bechers have built up over a period of 40 years.
Even though a vast amount of the couple's work has been published, there is a wealth of photographs that have still not been classified, either as prints or as images for inclusion in planned groups of work. That analysis is now an ongoing process within the framework of the present cooperation, conducted partly with an eye on the exhibition and publishing activities of Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, which is working to help complete their oeuvre under the supervision and with the assistance of the artists.
The thematic focus is the comprehensive documentation of industrial plants, a subject on which the artists have worked since 1961. In addressing it, they assign negatives to corresponding groups of work and draw on existing inventories of photographs with occasional additions. In this way, a collection reflecting the Bechers' complete oeuvre is gradually being built up, not least with a view to offering its contents on loan to international museums. Prerequisites for this are due conservational care and an approach to inventorization that treats the artists' stipulations on sequencing for publications and exhibitions as important interpretative criteria. The result of this is a major collection of Bernd and Hilla Becher's work that enables Die Photographische Sammlung to continue exhibition and publication work on a broad front.
The strength of the oeuvre stems especially from its origins as well as from the history of the subjects on which Bernd und Hilla Becher trained their cameras. Many of the buildings and installations they photographed were consigned to the past not long after they were documented. Condemned to demolition by plant closures, they were literally expunged from the face of the Earth. In a few fortunate cases, parts of them survived as cultural monuments, buildings converted for a different use or museum institutions and installations.
But recognizing the epochal change sweeping the iron and steel industry, the Bechers started back in the early 1960s to try and capture impressive images of still largely functional collieries and steel mills as well as other industrial and residential buildings, large-scale installations and structures connected closely with the conveyance, storage and transport of ore, coal, rock or earth. In the course of their relentless activity, they produced an encyclopaedic inventory of images that represents a major treasure trove of visual records depicting key areas of the mining and steel industries. Focusing on the cultural and technological history of Germany as well as large parts of Western Europe and North America, they pursued their work in Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Britain as well as in the various states of the US.
For the realization of their concept of creating a photographic documentation of historical industrial buildings, they developed at a very early stage a systematic approach and a differentiated pictorial and compositional idiom which still remains unique in terms of its stylistic clarity and enjoys a special status in Concept Art without subscribing totally to its aims and intentions. For example, important traditions with which the two artists identify should not be ignored. There are many parallels with early photography, 19th century painting and certain exponents of Neue Sachlichkeit. There are also aspects of their work that reveal a scientific mindset and mode of presentation geared to delivering objective evidence. In addition, Bernd and Hilla Becher's photographic work positions itself at interfaces of different of fields of knowledge. Above all, however, it stands in the vanguard of the history of 20th century visual art and photography.