Bernd and Hilla Becher

During the latter half of the 20th century, the conceptual artists Bernd and Hilla Becher anesthetized mechanical and machinic forms through their extensive photographs of industrial buildings, mines, grain elevators, gas tanks, mills, and water towers.

Shot in the mornings, under an overcast sky to avoid shadows, the frontally photographed “objective” images are displayed on a grid, and always without extensive explanations for the function of the structures. One views the photographs of Bechers with an eye toward formal compositions, and not toward operational performances. Whereas the Constructivists and the Bauhaus Modernists theorized machine and industrial architecture in terms of progress, the Bechers often documented built objects nearing obsolescence and disuse, as if some of their subjects are ruins from the past. Through their photographs, they present technology without instrumentality -and this absence turns their subjects into art.

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs opened up the possibility to frame technology in terms of affect, and not as a measure of teleological advancements. Their documentations instill a sense of longing and poetry to functionalist structures that have outlived their usefulness: as beams, girders, trusses, domes, braces, towers, ducts, and pipes are displayed as formalistic components capable of eliciting emotional aesthetic responses. These machinic parts that are shown through their photographs parallel Vitruvius’ description of classical orders, as they generate formalistic effects rather than convey functionalist requirements.