' The winding towers ... look very similar, and you could think that they came from a production series, like cars. Only when you put them beside each other do you see their individuality.’
Comprising fifteen individual photographs taken over a twenty-one-year period, the present work stems from Bernd and Hilla Becher’s series of Fördertürme, or Winding Towers. Shot in a variety of locations throughout Belgium and France, it depicts metal structures designed to carry equipment to underground mine shafts. In their documentary study of industrial architecture – a project that consumed their artistic careers – the Bechers changed the course of post-war art history. As teachers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, where they first met in 1957, their work went on to influence an entire generation of German photographers and conceptual artists, including Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. Structuring their oeuvre via a series of typological categories, they set out to document the various structural archetypes that graced the contemporary landscape of Europe and beyond. Within this serialised practice, functional buildings from a bygone industrial age – including water towers, gasometers and cooling towers – became glorified architectural presences. In the present work, the winding towers confront the viewer as raw sculptural giants, every detail reproduced with crystalline precision. ‘The winding towers . . . look very similar, and you could think that they came from a production series, like cars’, explains Bernd. ‘Only when you put them beside each other do you see their individuality’ (B. Becher, quoted at https://www. moma.org/collection/works/136060 [accessed 1 February 2019]). Other works from the series are held in the collections of Tate, London and the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In its seemingly objective and scientific character, the Bechers’ project extends the concerns of the pre-war New Objectivity movement, which espoused a return to ‘straight’ aesthetics. This reprisal of themes from the 1920s and 1930s was as much a response to the sentimental subjectivist photographic aesthetics that arose in the early post-war period as it was about rephrasing the subject of vernacular photography. Through their intense focus on the formal elements of their chosen structures, the Bechers succeeded in stripping their subjects of their functional history, recasting them as timeless, culturally-significant monuments. They began by assigning motifs in their structural typologies to ‘work groups’, which they progressively subdivided according to particular recurring characteristics. In the grid’s juxtaposition of similar structures, the Bechers paradoxically bring about an appreciation for the idiosyncratic differences and formal irregularities of the architecture. ‘You can only see the differences between the objects when they are close together, because they are sometimes very subtle’, Hilla explains. ‘All the objects in one family resemble each other, they are similar. But they also have a very special individuality’ (H. Becher, quoted in J. Lingwood, Bernd and Hilla Becher and Robert Smithson: Field Trips, exh. cat., Museu de Arte contemporânea de Serralves, Porta, 2002, p. 73).
Because of the formal resolution and consistency of their work, the Bechers’ photographs have often been likened to sculpture or painting. Using a large-format camera, they capture their subjects in deliberately overcast conditions so as to minimise the impact of shadow. Arranged in rows, the resulting images produce intriguing rhythmic patterns that invite comparison with Minimalism’s exploration of seriality. Through this treatment, their subjects’ unadorned edifices become flattened, allowing their ornate façades to dominate the picture plane. Oscillating between minute architectural detail and geometric abstraction, these structures take on an ethereal beauty that ultimately transcends categorisation. As Bernd explains, ‘It’s not a case of photographing everything in the world, but of proving that there is a form of architecture that consists in essence of apparatus, that has nothing to do with design, and nothing to do with architecture either. They are engineering constructions with their own aesthetic’ (B. Becher, quoted in U. Erdmann Ziegler, ‘The Bechers’ Industrial Lexicon’, Art in America, June 2002).