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Industrial Landscapes

By Bernd & Hilla Becher.MIT Press, 2002. 280pp. £56.50

As the Bechers' photographs appear so often in a fine art context of galleries and museums, it is easy to forget their value as historic documents, writes Andrew Mead . Many of the industrial structures that they have recorded for 40 years are at the end of their productive lives; candidates for demolition or gradual decay. Indeed, as Bernd Becher remarks in a rare interview that opens this latest volume, he and Hilla haven't always got there in time.

'Once we were in northern France, where we found a wonderful headgear - a veritable Eiffel Tower, ' he says. 'When we arrived the weather was hazy and not ideal for our work so we decided to postpone taking the photos for a day. When we arrived the next day, it had already been torn down, the dust still in the air. This happened to us several times.'

Assuming the structure (coal mine headgear, blast furnace, gasometer) was still standing, however, the Bechers would usually make it the central focus of a photograph, presenting it in relative isolation; creating in the process a series of typological comparisons that range across Europe and the US, spanning the extremes of naked functionalism and stylistic fancy dress. But, as this absorbing book reveals, the Bechers have also stood back and found a vantage point from which these structures can be seen in a broader context: the houses and gardens at Bochum-Hofstede of the miners at Zeche Hannibal (pictured); the graveyard overlooking the blast furnaces at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; brusque juxtapositions of industrial gigantism and modest domesticity. The social/economic foundations of their usual subjects become more explicit; and - as the title implies - not just a building emerges but a transformed landscape.

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