Bernd Becher trained as a painter and illustrator, and first depicted the factories that he and his wife, Hilla, would later photograph in neat and tidy watercolors and lithographs, almost as literal as architects’ renderings or, indeed, photographs. Hilla Becher (who died last October at the age of 81) had already trained and worked as a photographer, and it’s as if by joining forces with her in 1959, Bernd simply found a sharper pencil for recording the local landscape. Can it be that the impulses behind the early sketches and the famous photographs were the same—merely to document, as the couple told interviewers again and again, industrial architecture that was then disappearing from the part of Rhineland Germany where Bernd had grown up? I find myself wondering if his sketches and paintings, pursued for a few decades, might have gone in some unexpected direction, departing from representation entirely.
In that scenario, would Hilla’s photographic career also be a surprise? Imagine her as the Louise Bourgeois of photographic expressionism. Obviously not. One of the creations of her and Bernd’s artistic partnership was the seemingly perfect fusion of their visions. “No, there is no division of labor,” they told an interviewer in 1989, in a conversation that pointedly doesn’t designate which of them is speaking. “Outsiders cannot tell who has taken a particular photo and we also often forget ourselves. It simply is not important.” In 1968, Hilla had hinted at a more traditional arrangement, saying that she mainly developed and printed the photographs, while Bernd drove “into the Siegen and Ruhr areas and to Belgium on his ancient motorcycle” to take them. And after Bernd’s death in 2007, Hilla suggested that she had enabled his indifference to everything but their work. For their big retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in 2004, for example, she “hung the images and thought he’d show up for the opening. But he didn’t. He didn’t feel like it.” Most of the time, they granted no public access to the shared space where they conceived their pictures and agreed to continue, for nearly 50 years, to pursue their one method: making large-scale black-and-white portraits of industrial architecture, sorted into “typologies” and arranged into towering grids of six, nine, 12, 15, or 24 photographs. Theirs was the artistic expression of Stanley Cavell’s insight regarding the screwball comedies of remarriage: A successful partnership involves daily reaffirmation of the union, daily agreement that divorce—or some new stylistic departure—is not an option (because divorce, at least, has been for the last hundred years).
Many modernists aspired to this unswerving, long-term pursuit of a single style. The paintings of Fernand Léger, Otto Dix, and Edward Hopper (to take three almost at random) seem to distill the traditional expectation that an artistic calling will produce a recognizable manner, and the even tighter focus of later artists like Agnes Martin and Richard Serra has added to the prestige of the unwavering pursuit of one style. This cult of authenticity explains why it can take decades for artists whose approach is more restless, like Gerhard Richter or Sigmar Polke, to emerge from their local settings (in Richter’s case, he was 55 before he had his first small retrospective in the United States); why Philip Guston’s midcareer swerve away from his Abstract Expressionist origins is generally felt to be so heroic; or why the recent tributes to David Bowie lingered, repeatingly, on his allergy to repeating himself: It’s a way of proceeding that’s highly unusual. We talk about young writers finding their “voice” with the assumption that once it is found, it will somehow be intrinsic (note the contradiction!). The notion of a “late style” is the exception that proves the rule, the singular voice coming under the pressure of mortality. With the Bechers, whose work is so coldly “objective” and formally constant—each photograph of a massive industrial structure taken from the same elevated perspective, showing no human figures, shot only in low-contrast daylight (in Alabama they once waited around for three weeks for the weather to cooperate)—it can seem like the decision to stick to this manner is the real item they were so relentlessly working to photograph and then compare to itself, and photograph and compare to itself, in a lifetime-size grid.