Bernd Becher (1931-2007)

The work of Hilla and Bernd Becher was controversial to some people in the 1970s and 80s, but I came to it having sat (fleetingly) at the literal feet of Lewis Balz and studied with him and others of the work of the American New Topographics, so the kind of cool objective view embodied in their work came as no shock.

Of course their studies had a kind of ruthless scientific typology that the American work lacked, but it was something that the work of another German, August Sander had prepared me for. The kind of objective view of the Bechers fits well too with the Neue Sachlichkeit which came from Germany in the 1920s, a straightforward depiction of reality as seen in the work of Albert Renger-Patzsch or indeed of Helmut Gernsheim, whose photographic ideas rather disturbed the Royal Photographic Society when he arrived in England from Germany in the 1930s. As the title of Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 book says, ‘The World is Beautiful‘ and his work attempted to bring that out, while one of Gernsheim’s books was entitled ‘Beautiful London‘ (1951.)

The Bechers came to prominence in the rapidly developing art world in Europe, and were clearly seen as artists as well as photographers well before American dealers really began to take art seriously. They were accepted by the academic art world in Germany, and took photography into the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, where they had met when both were studying painting. Their classes turned out a new generation of masters of photography, among them Andreas Gursky, Candida Hofer, Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff.

Sadly, I’m prompted to think and write about the Bechers again because of the sad death of Bernd Becher, aged 75, following a heart operation. I knew the work of the Bechers in reproduction long before I saw their actual prints, and the presentation of their images in grids of small images which led to their recognition as conceptual artists had not prepared me for the quality of their work. Some of their large prints of cooling towers and other industrial structures had a truly classic beauty.

Sight and Sound‘ have republished an interesting feature on them, High precision industrial age souvenirs to mark Bernd’s death.

The Bechers became the most influential teachers of the era, not least because of the tremendous financial success of some of their students who became mega-stars of the art world (the Bechers themselves have never commanded similar prices despite the quality and influence of their work.)

I’ve always been uneasy about the great dynastic teachers such as the Bechers, Minor White and Callaghan. Sometimes their influence on their students has perhaps been too strong, turning out too many near-clones, who they have perhaps been rather too successful in promoting. Often this has meant that after the teacher’s death, the work of the students has tended to become less highly regarded. It is perhaps hard to see the market allowing this to happen in this case, although equally hard to see how some of the current art-market prices can be justified. But I suspect the work of the Bechers themselves may well be a very good investment.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.