Exploring sculpture in the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher

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The Metropolitan Museum of Art new homonymous exhibition, on view until November 6, 2022, sums up Bernd and Hilla Becher’s fascination with their subject and their desire to photograph what life has given them. Rather than lush alpine hills or curvaceous bodies, the objects on this walk were steel and concrete emblems of a turning point in Western history. Battered by two world wars and fueled by industrial zeal, the landscape surrounding the couple was far from attractive to most photographers. A kind of palatable beauty did not enter their frame – rather they peeled back the outer layers of research to recognize the veiled beauty of these overlooked structures. The Bechers’ images may require more patience to internalize than those of their contemporaries, but they promise poetry in repetition, geometry and texture.

Gravel Plants 1988–2001 Gelatin silver prints Each 15 15/16 x 12 3/8 in. (40.5 x 31.5 cm) Courtesy The Walther Collection © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Becher

As the show tours, which opens with a singular 1983 image of a bulbous water tower in Verviers, Belgium, each black-and-white serial grid formation produces its own architectural rhythms, enveloping the spectator of a mind-blowing experience of geometry, form and seriality. In this sense, the photographs are micro-groups of modernist architectural forms, orchestrated into macro juxtapositions of minimalist rhythm within their grid-like compositions. In the context of a major retrospective in which the adjoining walls contain variations of these grids, the work feels conceptualist and of the present.

The late couple’s first American retrospective since 1974, the expansive exhibition includes more than 200 of their works and a work by close friends Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt, who are also committed to revealing geometry through repetition. Six categories span the couple’s five-decade career, such as frame homes that take on the triangular shape of the German mid-century housing format or Zeche Concordia, devoted to images of a coal mine in northwest Germany. Germany, which the couple continued to photograph for three years. years to the late 1960s. Among these categories, Typologies epitomizes their great work of industrial architecture photography which led them to win the Golden Lion at the 44th Venice Biennale in 1990. Interestingly, the prestigious award n was not awarded to the artists, who were also professors at the Düsseldorf School of Photography, for their work in photography, but rather for their contribution to sculpture.

grid of black and white images of blast furnaces by Bernd and Hilla Becher
Blast Furnaces 1969–93 Gelatin silver prints Each 15 15/16 × 12 3/8 in. (40.5 × 31.5 cm) The Doris and Donald Fisher Collection at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © Estate Bernd & Hilla Becher, represented by Max Bécher

The Bechers used a large format camera and photographed their subjects on cloudy days to avoid extreme shadows on the facades. A series of fifteen gelatin silver prints, titled Water towers (New York, USA) (1978-79), shows water tanks perched on the roofs of New York, symbols of American urban planning and even of popular culture. The other fifteen images of Grain elevators (USA, Germany and France) (1982-2002) are united not in their geography but rather in their cylindrical shape – all erected with rounded weight, the silos are elegant and corporeal, unexpectedly linking architecture to sculpture.


Bernd and Hilla Becher is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until November 6, 2022.

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