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15 October 2015
The German photographer Hilla Becher and her husband Bernd collaborated on a different kind of photography. Everything was shot the same. From the same vantage point, using the same lens on the same film on the same 8x10 view camera at the same time of the same cloudless day with no people around in black and white. Only the subject would change.
And that subject might be water towers, gas storage tanks, cooling towers, grain elevators, industrial facades, steel mills, coal mines, lime kilns -- features of the 20th century's industrial landscape. They shot in Germany mostly but also in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Britain and the United States.
That wasn't the innovation, though. It was, however, the discipline that made the innovation possible.
The innovation was assembling the similar images into typologies, as they called them, of 9, 12, 15 or even 21 images arrayed in even rows like biological illustrations. Their work was influenced by the industrial images of August Sand but the called their spin on it the New Objectivity.
It wasn't an instant hit. One critic called them "the sort of pictures one sees in a real estate office."
But when you look at their work (see the slide show accompanying the obituary in the N.Y. Times or the images in the CityLab obit), it makes an impact. For us it was like listening to a glass bell choir. Every image is like a bell that looks like every other image in the set or bell in the choir but they each have a different sound. Taken together, they engage us. They make music.
And it was really more about the set of images than the collection of images. The Times obit quotes Hilla:
What we were interested in were the visual and the sculptural aspects of the structures. And because these types of purpose-built structures can't be preserved forever, we wanted to at least hold them fast in pictures, and so we began to collect them. Photography basically means nothing more than collecting.
She didn't, we suspect, mean simply making as many photographs of these subjects as possible. Or we would be in awe of every Instagram photographer. It was "collection" in the sense of seeing these similar but individual subjects as one work. Something she continued to do after Bernd's death in 2007, reassembling their existing photographs into new works.
Born in 1934 in Potsdam, she took photos as an adolescent before training in Walter Eichgrün's photo studio. At the age of 20, she moved to Hamburg and worked as a freelance photographer for an aerial photo company.
She met her future husband Bernd while she was working at an advertising agency in 1957 and, like him, attending the Düsseldorf Art Academy. The began collaborating in 1959 while still in school and married in 1961.
In 1970 they published Anonymous Sculptures: A Typology of Technical Buildings, a catalog of their work which introduced them to America and was followed by shows in Paris and New York.
Their approach to photography, which came to be known as the Becher school, influenced the Minimalist and Conceptual art schools and artists like Ed Ruscha and Douglas Huebler. Their work was documented in the 2006 publication of Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work.
She is survived by her son Max, a photographer, and two grandchildren.