Review – Bernd And Hilla Becher

Brief:- You probably own many significant objects, from a wedding ring to old clothes, trophies of achievement to mementos that recall special events or times of your life, like toys or records. Choose one of these to photograph. This mustn’t be a general thing like ‘flowers’ but something entirely specific to you. Respect the fact that this object matters to you. Photograph it carefully, thinking about how this object ought to be viewed through the camera. Consider the framing, viewpoint, background, placement, light and composition. Does the photograph (the representation) have the same meaning as the object itself ? Is there a difference? Now develop this exercise into a series of three photographs of similar objects. For example, if you chose to photograph your wedding ring, ask friends if you can photograph their wedding rings. If you photographed your home, photograph other people’s homes. Use exactly the same viewpoint, framing, lighting (as far as possible), background, etc., for each. This will help the three final photos fit together as a conclusive series. Look online at the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Note how the composition, framing and lighting is almost identical in each photograph and how this ‘gels’ the series together. 

Becher, B and Becher, 1959 to 1973 H Framework HousesFig. 1. Framework Houses (1959-73)

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) Hilla Becher (1934 – 2015)

Initial thoughts

Not Tudor, not imitation Tudor. I haven’t seen frame houses that are neither Tudor nor imitation. Maybe from the USA or parts of Europe that I havent visited. Orderliness, structure, unusual perspective, is there actually a house there or are these just mock walls like a film set? Very little background/vegetation and no people, but would like to see on a gallery wall for a closer inspection. The structure of each house is highly visible because there are no distractions. Routine – each house fills roughly the same area of the frame, and with only minor fluctuations in exposure and tone. All black and white so there are no contrasting or colours to distract. Very few windows, what do the residents do for daylight? Vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines – this appeals to me. Although there are slight differences it is possible to suggest that they were built by only three different builders (see the framework/bricks between the slopes of the roof’s).

I find myself only able to agree with the course manual in relation to the composition, framing and lighting. The routine and conformity highlight the shapes and lines of the buildings and their frames, and its interesting how the small structural differences and patterns are noticable and quite intriguing. Obviously this could not be the case if a single photo was exhibited alone. I think that if the series was to be taken and displayed with the same houses but shot at different angles, the detail would be lost. The 3D structure of the houses would alter the perspective greatly, and the backgrounds would then be a distraction. This is a great technique for photographing similar subjects if you want to highlight differences in detail and have an orderly presentation.

Stacy McCarroll Cutshaw (2012) describes the Becher’s work as being an important change of direction in landscape photography, moving away from the old romanticism and into a systemic approach, which is also more scientific. “The idea of topographies as applied to the photographed landscape stems from the exhibition ‘New Topographies: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape’ held in 1975 at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York… The Photographs were not romanticized images of the vast outdoors of the American West but depictions of everyday suburban sprawl. They focused on manufactured, industrialized landscapes, paying particular attention to the environment altered by human kind… Works by the German collaborative photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, such as Framework Houses (1958-1973…) also featured in the show. Their oeuvre is pivotal to a generation of European and US photographers who cultivated a systematic approach to photography.” (Hacking; 2014; pp 400 + 401).

My significant object

This maybe a tricky exercise for me. The most important object to me is my Gohonzon. The Gohonzon is  a scroll that is used by practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism. It contains the Mystical Law of the Lotus Sutra written in Japanese text. It is the centre piece of my alter, sitting above the fireplace with several crystals and candles. I would not want to use anything else for this exercise.

My difficulty is that I do not meet other people regularly. In fact outside of appointments that I attend I have only met up three people, and a couple (all friends and family) this year. Currently I have no plans to meet up with anyone.

At the moment I see my options as being – find a church that’s open and photograph the alter, or make use of a photo that I took in Lindisfarne. It would be better to photograph my alter first and then go and shoot in a church. This would mean that I could control the composition, although the lighting will be significantly different (however I could make use of bracketed exposure, 5 stops each way and convert to HDR for the inside of the church). Then to find a different religious building, or a group, or individual and photograph their alter or significant spiritual object.

My second idea would be to make my photo first and then email it to several people and ask them if they can make a photo of their spiritually significant place, using the same composition and similar lighting if possible.

Difficulties are just solutions playing hide and seek.

Illustrations

Figure 1; Becher, B andBecher, H; 1959-73; Framework Houses; AT: https://www.moma.org/collection/works/127884 (accessed on 19/05/2018)

References

Hacking, J; 2014; Photography: The Whole Story; London; Thames and Hudson

6 Replies to “Review – Bernd And Hilla Becher”

    1. Very much appreciated Em. It’s saved my life. I couldn’t get outside two years ago because of my mental health (anxiety and paranoia, and was suicidal). Photography has changed that, slowly got me going out, and now I can sometimes approach people and ask to take their photo. I love photography so much.

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  1. I was able to see two huge images of Bechers’ work when I visited the Masters of Photography exhibition that I wrote up on a (fairly!) recent blog. There is no doubt being able to see Cooling Towers 15 3/4 x 11 3/4 images printed in the early 1960s, enabled the effectiveness the objective stark compositions. Monochrome images shot in flat light emphasised the detail of the construction and the beauty of the result.

    Liked by 1 person

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