Sunday, July 24, 2011

Gallery Visit: Bernd und Hilla Becher, Bergwerke und Hütten

The second major photography exhibition in Munich this year was the Becher exhibit at the Munich City museum, a museum well worth a visit under any circumstance, the cafe is excellent and the standing exhibition always worthy of inspection.


I have blogged recently about the Bechers and their impact upon the art photography world through their students at the Dusseldorf School of Photography, so it was with considerable excitement that I finally had an opportunity to see their work in the flesh, hung on the walls of a gallery.  The exhibit featured a selection from their huge opus covering industrial buildings, this time Mines and Cabins, although the cabins in question were immense factories.

Their style is at the same time very simple and very complex.  The buildings are photographed under identical grey overcast light conditions, almost always from an elevated vantage point, using a large format camera.  Achieving such consistency is difficult, they are reputed to have spent days waiting for the correct weather conditions.  The images are very carefully composed and the quality of the prints is remarkable, the detail contained is quite astonishing, a testament to the resolving power of a large format camera.

Detailed inspection reveals very high depth of field, clearly produced by long exposures, indeed the only clear flaws in some of the images is the fact that vegetation is often blurred as any wind would create movement.  People are largely absent from their photographs, although the machines that they work in are clearly occupied.  In several of the prints peoples homes intersperse the industrial landscape, sometimes in terrifying ways, the juxtaposition of domestic normality with the mines and blast furnaces points to hard lives.  The exhibit contained over a 100 large format prints, each roughly A2 in size, framed and lit identically and arranged in orderly rows along the walls of the gallery.

Commenting on any one image is a pointless exercise, even though I would be proud to create an image close in quality to any one that was presented.  There impact is as a whole, a typography of buildings.  The relentless presentation reinforces the similarity of the structures separated sometimes by continents, this is very much a case of function driving form.  The work is designed to be seen together.

The rhythmic placement of the photographs and the lighting of the gallery was interesting in its own right, learning about placement and presentation is a useful aspect of gallery visits:

When I compare a photography exhibit to the way paintings are hung, there are very distinct differences, first of all the frames do not detract from the contents, there is much greater creativity is spacing and the lighting is far better tuned to the subject matter.  This may reflect the difference between and permanent and temporary exhibit, but I do find the treatment of photography exhibits to be more expressive.

Turning back to the content, the work of the Bechers has influenced the practice of many modern art photographers, I also sense their influence, although in my small beginnings this is more in their approach than outcome.  Their craft and technical competence enable high quality final product.  I am by nature very impatient, slowing my work down always improves my image making, the Bechers are an inspiration in the systemic approach to making photographs.

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