Relationship goals with Bernd and Hilla Becher
“You can exchange ideas and it feels less bleak when you are in some god-forsaken place.”
Since everyone seemed to enjoy Tove and Tooti’s cottage life last time, I thought I would turn to another successful creative partnership: that of the German husband-and-wife photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher (1931–2007; 1934–2015), who are currently the subjects of a retrospective on view at the Met until November 6.
I’m guessing that many of you are already familiar with the Bechers’ work: Over decades, they photographed water towers, blast furnaces, grain elevators, cooling towers, lime kilns, gasometers, and other components of industrial architecture in rigorously precise black-and-white images that they later gathered into “typologies.” Grouped together, these stoic compositions became something else entirely—a witty, profound survey of human endeavor and its inherent beauty, goofiness, and/or pathos, depending on your mood.
At first glance, you might guess that these photographs were relatively easy to take; just set up a tripod, click, repeat. In fact, the Bechers went to extraordinary lengths to capture them. Every stage of the process involved hurdles, from getting permission to photograph active industrial sites to finding the right angle—the Bechers preferred to shoot from slightly above, which often meant climbing a nearby structure—to attaining specific light conditions. “We preferred very soft light,” Hilla said in a 2015 video. “If the light was too harsh we had to wait for a cloud or we had to wait for the winter or we had to wait for dawn.”
As for their working partnership, the Bechers did not rely on any set division of labor. Whether they were in the field or in the darkroom, each partner did whatever needed to be done, more or less interchangeably. In a 2004 interview, a journalist asked the Bechers, well, why exactly do you work together? I find their reply hilariously matter-of-fact:
Could you now take the shots you took together alone? What difference does it make going about this together?
Bernd: None. But everything is easier to handle as we help each other.
Hilla: Traveling together is simply more pleasant.
Bernd: Also considering all the lugging this entails. We have to climb and some of our photographing positions are quite dangerous and difficult to reach. All this is considerably easier to manage with two of us.
Hilla: In some of the blast furnace plants it is one of the conditions that two people are there together owing to the danger of toxic gases. If something were to happen to one of us, the other could always get help. But there are other reasons why we do this together. When you are traveling together you can exchange ideas and it feels less bleak when you are in some god-forsaken place—like when we spent weeks traveling through the American Midwest. The nights in shabby hotels are more comfortable when you are with somebody.
At the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all looking for in a relationship? Someone who will make the nights in shabby hotels more comfortable and also go for help if we succumb to toxic gases.
FINALLY WE ARE ABLE TO GO AHEAD
I found the above exchange in Susanne Lange’s Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work. The book also reprints some of the notes that Hilla Becher made during their travels, and these provide a fascinating glimpse of the day-to-day reality of their work.
Here are a few excerpts from Hilla’s notes during the couple’s travels in the United States in the early 1980s: