The Bechers at the Met

by Scott Schomburg

Seen from a distance, two small figures stand side by side in the shadow of a tree, co-constructing a view. He makes a camera with his hands, frames a picture; she points to something, says something, we don’t know what. With his right hand on his hip, her left hand on hers, they look like one person, trees radiant green behind them. They look, then talk, look, then talk. They notice nothing but the object to which they feel drawn.

Earlier, we saw an orange VW bus make its slow progress down a country road in Western Ohio, summer of 1987. They stop to eat lunch—she sits above him; he pours her a drink—then we are inside the bus, and their son, Max Becher, who is shooting the film, watches landscapes passing by, as his parents go looking for pictures.

I am watching a short, silent film at the Met, surrounded by black-and-white prints on the gallery walls. Winding towers, framework houses, coal bunkers, gas tanks, blast furnaces, lime kilns, water towers, each one pictured in solitude, each one weathered but alive, each one photographed differently, I would learn, to make them appear as if they exist in one world, because they do: the passionate world of Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Grain Elevators (United States, Germany, and France), 1982-2002 by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Gelatin silver prints.

Starting in 1959, the artist couple worked for over fifty years on a single subject: disappearing industrial architecture of Western Europe and North America. They were tireless, collecting daily what they called anonymous sculpture: commonplace buildings that mostly go unnoticed, until they’re gone. But these are not sad pictures of ruins; they are buildings seen in use, proudly serving the function that gave rise to their form.

A grain silo catches their eye; a caption catches mine: Bluffton, Ohio. I know that place. I lived there for one year. But where are they? Where is the grain elevator that so captured their attention? I don’t recognize it. I had certainly never looked for it.

They look and look and look. For two days, they prepare their picture. Bernd saws down a tree—it’s obscuring their view of the silo—while Hilla drags branches out of view, some several times her size, until the tree is down. The next day, Bernd carries the tripod, Hilla the heavy camera. We watch their slow progress up a dirt mound, then back to where they were before, eyes fixed. Bernd places the tripod, then stands behind the camera, black cloth hiding his head. A few more beats, then we cut to a weedy roadside. Bernd is resting under shade; Hilla is walking down a gravel path. The picture has been taken, we feel, but we don’t see it. Instead, we follow them back to their hotel, watch them carry the equipment inside. In the last frame, we finally see the finished print, the silo they saw.

Then it’s gone, and the film replays from the beginning, and the Bechers do it all again. That’s how it was with them, says the loop: eat, look, sleep, repeat.

I look for the silo in the rest of the exhibit, hoping a closer study will jog my memory of seeing it in Bluffton, but that specific print is nowhere to be found; in the exhibit, it only exists in the film, fading in and out, every seven minutes, all day long.

At home I open Google Maps. The Bluffton silo still stands, visible from Main Street. Memories flood back. Every week in midsummer, I walked that route with friends to the Bluffton Dairy Freeze (to locals: the Whippy Dip) for ice cream. I had passed the grain elevator countless times and never noticed it, not until the Bechers showed me where to look. “There’s a cultural delay that has to do with how artists help people see things,” said Max Becher. “For example, windmills used to be seen as nothing but functional objects that were not particularly attractive. Three hundred years ago, the subjects that were supposed to be attractive had to do with wealth and religion and so forth. Enough artists, though, saw these forms in the landscape, and eventually that became the aesthetic. After a while, people really liked windmills, while at the same time they had no compassion for water towers or equally interesting objects from industry. This is what my parents meant by a delay. They thought, if we photograph these subjects now, while they are still around, fifty years from now they will be considered very attractive, or interesting, or whatever, and become part of the landscape.”

Seeing the Bechers’ work—the achieved simplicity, the interest in the thing itself—sent me to a book, The Art Spirit by Robert Henri, the American painter and teacher. I was thinking of a specific passage on the painter’s feeling for simply made tools.

“I LOVE the tools made for mechanics,” wrote Henri. “I stop at the windows of hardware stores. … They are so beautiful, so simple and plain and straight to their meaning. There is no ‘Art’ about them, they have not been made beautiful, they are beautiful.” The same is true of the industrial forms the Bechers photographed. Nothing needed to be manipulated or romanticized by the artists. They wanted clarity; they wanted to understand as much as they could. “They wanted the photographs to show every bolt,” said Max. “It’s about recording the information.” The buildings only needed their interest, and the longer the Bechers looked, the more interesting the buildings became to them.

Each artist, Henri believed, must seek for themselves “the people who hold the essential beauty,” and each artist must say to themselves: “These are my people, and all that I have I owe to them.” This may, at first glance, be an odd passage to join with Bechers, since their images are mostly absent of people. But this isn’t so. Every picture they took is a record of human effort, not only of the builders but of the people who used them. In fact, once people were gone and the structure shut down, the Bechers’ interest left, too.

“They wanted the object to represent itself,” said Max, “as if it had a soul, as if it wanted to say, ‘Here’s my best side. Look at me, I am proud. I am beautiful and I am proud, and lots of people depend on me; here’s the best possible picture of me.’”

Becher photographs are impossible without people, the ones to whom they gave all that they had. They didn’t first record industrial architecture for art galleries; they recorded it for future engineers. Their respectful studies don’t exclude people; they include people indirectly. Sometimes you can better understand people, their pictures show, by looking away from people. “If you look long enough,” said Max Becher, “you see their emotional connections to all of them.” Them being the buildings themselves, inextricable from the people who used them.

Before I return to the exhibit, I go to the Art & Architecture Reading Room at the New York Public Library, where I request the Bechers’ book on the grain elevators they photographed. I flip through its large pages, looking for the Bluffton print, and when I find it, I see two other grain silos, also from Bluffton, also structures I don’t recognize. So I return to the Met, where I see a large grid of twenty-four portraits of twenty-four different silos. During my previous visit, I looked for the print in the film, but it wasn’t here. Now I see something else, bottom row, second from the right: another Bluffton silo. It was always there, presenting its best self. I just didn’t know how to look for it yet.



Scott Schomburg is a writer living in New York City.




Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: