Hilla Becher, known for her painstaking photography of industrial buildings and structures, has died aged 81
Working with her husband Bernd, Becher spent almost half a century compiling a uniquely comprehensive record of blast furnaces, grain silos, coal mines, water towers and gas tanks across Europe and the United States.
Born Hilla Wobeser in Potsdam in 1934, Becher began taking pictures as a teenager and later trained at photographer Walter Eichgrün’s studio, photographing local structures like the Prussian palace, Sanssouci.
In 1957 she met Bernhard Becher, known as Bernd, when they were studying at Düsseldorf Art Academy. While there, they worked together, photographing the Ruhr and the industrial Siegerland area, where Bernd was raised. They married in 1961.
‘Because these types of purpose-built structures can’t be preserved forever, we wanted to at least hold them fast in pictures’
Over 50 years, the couple drove around Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France in their Volkswagen, photographing hundreds of industrial structures; they also took photos in Britain and the United States.
Arranged into typologies, the meticulous black and white pictures have been described by the Financial Times as one of the most ‘influential bodies of photographic work in the history of the medium’.
With an 8x10 large-format camera, the couple only shot in overcast weather. They would often wait for days for the right conditions of neutrality in an attempt to remove creative influence and artistic decision. Most of the photographs lack people and details.
The pair would develop their prints by hand and arrange them in geometric grids for display, before collating them in publications dedicated to separate building types. Anonymous Sculpture: A Typology of Technical Buildings was published in 1970 and Water Towers in 1988.
Despite the deliberately ‘objective’ and unartistic nature of the Bechers’ work, they won the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography in 2004 and the Erasmus Prize in 2002 while teaching at Düsseldorf Art Academy.
Their photographs are now in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Tate among other galleries. Architects, artists and photographers including world-renowned German photographer Andreas Gursky were inspired and influenced by what became known as the ‘Becher school’.
Becher once said: ‘What we were interested in were the visual and the sculptural aspects of the structures. And because these types of purpose-built structures can’t be preserved forever, we wanted to at least hold them fast in pictures, and so we began to collect them. Photography basically means nothing more than collecting.’
Hilla Becher died on 10 October, eight years after the death of her husband Bernd Becher in 2007. She is survived by their son, Max – also an artist and photographer – and two grandchildren.