Hilla Becher, who, with her husband, Bernd, revolutionized the field of photography with their austere images of industrial structures, and who went on to teach important German photographers like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, died on October 10. She was 81.
Becher is known almost exclusively for her work with her husband, Bernd, who died in 2007 at age 75. The Bechers’ photographs are easily recognizable because many utilize the same composition. Their black-and-white, large-format images of water towers, steel mills, and other industrial structures always depict their subjects frontally and without any people. When shown in a gallery, the photographs are meant to be exhibited in grids, making their severe, foreboding compositions appear even more similar. Making the work, the Bechers traveled across Germany in a Volkswagen that also functioned as a bedroom and a darkroom, and as a nursery for their son, Max, capturing these architectural forms in early morning light so as not to get any shadows in the shot.
Born in 1934 in Potsdam, Germany, Hilla met Bernd while studying in Düsseldorf, in 1959. Bernd was a more traditional artist at the time and had only toyed with the idea of photomontages; Hilla took photographs for advertisements. The two decided to work together—and also to be a couple. No less than two years later, they were married. In 1963, they had their first show at Galerie Ruth Nohl, in Siegen. By the time Bernd died, the Bechers had won both the Erasmus Prize and the Hasselblad Prize, in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
By 1972, the year the Bechers had their first solo show in America, at New York’s Sonnabend Gallery, it was clear that many of their stylistic concerns were in the air. (America’s first major exposure to the Bechers’ work was the 1970 book Anonymous Sculptures.) The use of the grid could be seen throughout the art world, thanks to Minimalism, and a number of Conceptual artists like Ed Ruscha and Douglas Huebler were making images according to systematic rules. Also by then, they, like Ruscha and other Conceptual artists, were photographing vernacular American architecture. Where the Bechers’ work differed, however, was in its involvement with German art history. Their choice to use black and white referred to the artistic movement Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), in which artists like August Sander used photography to picture industrialism’s effect on post-World War I Germany.
The decision to use large-format technology was largely unprecedented in the art world, and this would perhaps be the Bechers’ greatest impact on contemporary photography. From 1976 to 1996, Bernd was a faculty member at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. (Hilla, who also taught there, was not allowed to be a faculty member, due to policy restrictions.) In that time, the Bechers had students who would become today’s most important German photographers as students—Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth are among the most important photographers to have graduated from the Becher school, as it has endearingly been called by critics. These photographers took from the Bechers an interest in German architecture and landscapes, and how large-format photography can be used as a tool with which to make conceptual art.
Following Bernd having died, Hilla initially had plans to continue doing photography. In 2008, she said she wanted to travel to England to shoot pictures of more industrial structures, despite knowing that her old age would likely prevent her from using large-format cameras. She told Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin: “At the end of his life, Bernd often said: Hilla, we haven’t finished the job. And then we almost started fighting because I said: What do you think? We can’t finish our job, since it’s infinite.”