On a recent trip to the UK, I found myself with a few hours to spare in London and so decided to visit the Tate Modern art gallery. Of course, it would be my luck to stumble across a mining and industrial photographic exhibition while browsing through the various collections. Given the rarity of industrial art, particularly photographs depicting historical industrial and mining landscapes, I could not miss the opportunity of sharing the experience and relating some of the history behind that exhibition.
On entering one of the many cavernous white rooms that make up the Tate Modern, I was immediately struck by the distinctive uniformity of a collection of photographs adorning the walls. The photographs were uniform not only in terms of their symmetrical groupings along the walls but, more interestingly, each group displayed homogenous black-and-white images of distinctive industrial and mining structures. Each group of photographs displayed an individual series of nine old mining headgears, nine coal bunkers, nine gas tanks and nine water towers. There was also a larger series of 24 images depicting old blast furnaces.
The immediate impression of the collection put me in mind of South African artist Jeannette Unite’s ‘Headgear’ series, which I am intimately familiar with. Unite’s ‘Headgear’ series is a collection of bold, charcoal-based drawings of the mining headgears, or winding towers, that have dominated South Africa’s mining landscape for more than a century.
I was naturally intrigued enough by the display, both in terms of the subject of the images themselves and the seemingly historical vibe that emanated as a result of their black-and-white style, to investigate further.
The exhibition in question was the work of the German photographic duo of Bernd Becher and his wife, Hilla, two of the most prominent European photographers of the twentieth century and founders of the artistic movement known as the Dusseldorf School of Photography.
The Bechers, who met as students at the Kunstakademie, in Düsseldorf, in 1957, and married in 1961, are most famous for producing highly austere and uniform photographs that almost exclusively focused on the historical significance and visual appearance of industrial structures and landscapes.
Over their five-decade-long career (until the death of Bernd Becher in 2007), the couple photographed hundreds of industrial plants, buildings and mining-related infrastructure across Europe and North America. Subjects included water towers, coal tipples, cooling towers, grain elevators, coal bunkers, coke ovens, oil refineries, blast furnaces, gas tanks, storage silos and warehouses. The Bechers’ consistently referred to these subjects as “anonymous sculptures”, with their form and function being implicitly bound up with the geography and economy of the landscape they dominated. While their work has often been discussed in terms of creating a photographic record of a disappearing industrial landscape, the couple once stated: “Right from the outset, we have, likewise, photographed very newly built plants … And it is simply not true that we are only interested in ‘antiquities’.”
Interestingly, their focus on the industrial vernacular stemmed from a shared fascination with that particular kind of architecture as well as the horror that such megastructures, once the driving force of the economy, would soon disappear from the landscape as Europe moved into a more advanced postwar economic era. “I was overcome with horror when I noticed that the world in which I was besotted was disappearing,” Bernd Becher once stated in an interview.
While the Bechers may be well known for their choice of subject matter, they are particularly famous for their style of photography, which can best be described as uniformly austere and almost scientifically objective. This style was achieved by a rigorously consistent approach to all their subjects.
The Bechers produced each image methodically, following the same setup every time: they would position a large-format camera to capture the subject from one of three distinct perspectives (as a detail, in the context of its surroundings, or in its entirety) to take up the whole frame of the picture. Moreover, each image would be captured in the grey morning light or in overcast conditions during the spring or autumn months to avoid shadows and produce a consistency of light. This approach allowed the artists to group images together in a grid that, irrespective of the dates they were taken, by the function of the structure, materials used and shared formal characteristics to create “a more or less perfect chain of different forms and shapes”.
According to Bernd Becher, this approach allowed one to “lay the photos alongside one another and realise what [the structures] have in common, what is specific to the basic form of a blast furnace or a cooling tower and what is individual variation”.
Having actively photographed industrial landscapes for half a century, the Bechers’ body of work is inevitably extensive. However, the collections on display at the Tate included Winding Towers (Britain) 1966−1997, Winding Towers (Doppelstreben) 1965–1996, Winding Towers (France, Belgium) 1967–1988, Coal Bunkers 1974, Pitheads 1974, Water Towers 1972–2009, Gas Tanks 1965–2009, and Blast Furnaces 1969–1995.
Naturally, the most intriguing of these series was that of the Winding Towers. The series comprises nine gelatin silver print photographs of mining headgears that were taken by Bernd and Hilla over 30 years and printed in 2013 under the supervision of Hilla. The project started in 1966, after the pair had received an invitation from the British government to photograph all the major industrial areas across the land. With some financial assistance from the National Coal Board, the Bechers photographed many industrial facades and mining infrastructure around Nottingham, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and the Rhondda Valley. Interestingly, the period over which this work was undertaken saw the decimation of the coal industry in the UK. What had been working machines at the beginning of the project were defunct relics by the time it was completed.
Being subject to licensing protocols, no images of the exhibition can be reproduced here. However, should you wish to view the photographs visit http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/bernd-becher-and-hilla-becher-718.