The Bechers’ grids pose questions about the nature of photography – as documentary collections of images of the world. They use a consistent technique (they used a 10” x 8” camera) applied to similar, or specific types of subjects – particularly functional industrial structures. The subtle individualities of these emerge through meticulous visual scrutiny of each, combined with repetition and juxtaposition as a pattern of the whole.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts (2011, p.194) describe the visual effect of one of their collections:
“The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long forgotten gods.”
At the very least, the Bechers’ typologies stand for deeper concerns about the essence of photography, particularly about ideas relating to the medium and its practitioners as collectors – gathering, arranging and archiving visual information about the world.
[See David Campany’s essay ‘Almost the same thing: some thoughts on the collector-photographer’ in Dexter, E. & Weski, T. (eds.) (2003) Cruel and Tender: The Real in the Twentieth-Century Photograph. London: Tate Publishing]
The Bechers present modern industry in a manner that disavows its social, political and economic value to the beholder and, in so doing, makes it available anew via an alternative category – aesthetic value or value ‘without any interest’.
.. the pattern of ‘rhythms and repetitions’ established between the individual pictures (and, we might add, between individual series as well) is’very much the idea of the work.’ Such, the artists have admitted, is their goal – ‘to produce a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes’…
Their system is based on a rigorous set of procedural rules: a standardised format and ratio of figure to ground, a uniformly level, full-frontal view, near-identical flat lighting conditions or the approximation of such conditions in the photographic processing, a consistent lack of human presence, a consistent use of the restricted chromatic spectrum offered by black and white photography rather than the broad range given by colour, precise uniformity in print quality, sizing, framing and presentation, and a shared function for all the structures photographed for a given series. There is another obvious rule too, although one their project might be said to systematically ignore – their industrial history is exclusively and resolutely a history of the west…. The term they generally use to describe their method is ‘typological’ and they freely state that it has ’much to do with the nineteenth century’, that is, they say, with ‘the encyclopaedic approach’ used, for example, in botany or zoology or, we might add, psychology and criminology. Indeed, we might say more broadly, their system is based precisely on the principle of the archive – its ‘dry compartmentalisation’, as Allan Sekula has put it – that so concerned Michel Foucault.
The New Topographics
Bernd and Hilla Becher were the only non-American contributors to New Topographics. The Bechers’ contribution was a grid consisting of multiple views of a coal processing plant in Pennsylvania.
They inspired a generation of students who studied under them in the late1970s and 80s at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth.