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Bernd and Hilla Becher's Photographs of Industrial Sites Shown in MoMA Exhibition
Bernd and Hilla Becher, Winding Towers, Belgium, Germany, 1971-1991. Gelatin silver prints. Lent by Hilla Becher, Courtesy Sonnabend Gallery, New York. © Hilla Becher

NEW YORK.- The Museum of Modern Art presents Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape/Typology, a focussed examination of the influential photographic work of the German husband-and-wife team. For nearly 50 years, the Bechers photographed water towers, gas tanks, cooling towers, and other large industrial structures, notably including the winding towers of coal mines and the blast furnaces that produce iron and steel. The exhibition juxtaposes two very different aspects of their work: twelve of their celebrated typologies (grids of closely related images of variants of a particular type of structure) and some two dozen of their less familiar landscapes (overall views of industrial sites). Ten of the typologies each comprise nine individual prints; two are each made up of 30 prints. All of the photographs are black-and-white prints. On view in The Robert and Joyce Menschel Gallery on the third floor from May 21 to August 25, 2008, the exhibition is organized by Peter Galassi, Chief Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art.

Bernd Becher (German, 1931–2007) and Hilla Wobeser (German, b. 1934) met in 1957 in Düsseldorf, where both attended the state art academy. They began to work together in 1959 and married in 1961. For decades they traveled throughout northern Europe and the United States to photograph the industrial plants that fascinated them, eventually visiting more than 200 sites. Early on in their collaboration, the Bechers developed the distinctive method for which they soon became widely known: each individual photograph isolates a large structure and describes it with the frontality and exactitude of an engineer’s diagram. Thanks to this strict template, the grid-like typologies simultaneously reveal the basic forms of common functions while highlighting the unique details of each particular specimen.

In addition to assembling material for their typologies, the Bechers made overall views of each site. These views generally adopt a high and distant vantage point that permits the viewer to study the layout of the plant and its relationship to its surroundings. In other words, the landscapes embrace precisely what the typologies so rigorously exclude. Far less familiar than the typologies, the landscapes were published together only in 2003.

The landscapes, displayed on the central wall of the gallery, and the typologies, displayed on the perimeter walls, present mutually exclusive pictorial strategies. Mr. Galassi states, “Each yields photographs full of informative and reliable detail—pictures that might be mistaken for objective documents, uninflected by sensibility. When they are presented together, however, each strategy betrays the artifice of the other, proving that in photography fact is the agent, not the enemy, of art.”

Apart from regular exhibitions at the Sonnabend Gallery, which has represented the Bechers for nearly four decades and has kindly assisted in the preparations for Bernd and Hilla Becher: Landscape/Typology, this is only their third solo exhibition in New York City. The others were a show in the Projects series at MoMA, in 1975–76, and a major exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation, in 1989–91.

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