Hilla Becher, one half of the collaborative duo that changed the pitch of architectural photography in the 1960s and ‘70s, has died at the age of 81. The German photographer and her husband, Bernd Becher, who died eight years ago, launched a study of the industrial buildings of Europe and, as a result, carved out an “objective” course in photography.
Today, the Bechers’ photographs only seem objective in a technical sense. Forty years on, their sturdy black-and-white photographs of crumbling monoliths summon romantic images of an industrial revolution forged in factories. Blast furnaces, water tanks, lime kilns, and grain silos comprise the “anonymous sculptures” that the Bechers would study their entire lives.
With the publication of Anonyme Skulpturen in 1970, the pair came to global prominence. Bernhard and Hildgard Becher occupied several professional spheres at once. In artistic circles, their work was understood as something like conceptual art. Today, their photographs can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate, and many other prestigious museums. For architects, however, their work had an even more profound significance.
In the 1960s, the Bechers began documenting industrial structures that were disappearing across Germany. Their approach was “objective” in the sense that the photographers sought to remove artistic decision-making from the process. Each photo depicted its subject in the same standard, isolated, focused way—like mug shots for infrastructure. Collectively, these photos added up to cohesive typological studies, pictured broadly in Typologies of Industrial Buildings and Basic Forms (both 2004) or in drop-down detail in such presentations as Water Towers (1988), Grain Elevators (2006), and Coal Mines and Steel Mills (2010).