I find the work of the Bernd and Hilla Becher funny. In museums and galleries, I have laughed out loud standing in front of their photographs.
Sean O’Hagan writes in a review, “if you are looking for photography that engages the emotions and the intellect, this is probably not the place to go.” He repeats a cliché about their work, that it’s “relentlessly detached,” comparing it to August Sander. Great art provokes many responses, but I’ve never read a compelling argument that the primary experience of the Bechers, the Düsseldorf school, and typology photography in general, is cold and detached.
Perhaps the style of the photography is distracting from the content. Or maybe the concept of the typology, and the presentation of photographs in grids drains some people of emotion. Describing the Bechers’ work as detached is like describing a man in a tuxedo catatonically sitting at a piano, but ignoring that he is playing Ligeti.
In the gallery setting, being confronted with a grid of photographs can be frustrating, regardless of your height. It can sometimes feel like a typology of picture frames. But in many of the Becher grids what you see are buildings trying to look like other buildings, to reach maximum utility or attain some ideal version, but failing. This failure is a little sad, the Calvinistic impulse imploding on itself, but also pathetic in a humorous way. The Bechers’ grids are not showing us a fit, trim army of trained killers. These are ragtag bands, the result of architecture without architects. One guy has his hat on backwards, another is holding a dented tuba and his jacket is missing an arm, another has dried wine streaking down the front of his shirt.
I also find the forms in the individual photographs quite funny. Consider the form at the top half of this photo of a blast furnace (source). Was zum Teufel!? If this was a form found in nature, mangrove trees or an insect, it would be somewhat silly. That this blast furnace was designed by a man in tweed, that this thing has a practical purpose, only deepens its absurdity. Like some of the water tower photographs, this form looks like a Louise Bourgeois sculpture. Despite being massive black steel insects, I’ve seen children laugh at and play around Louise Bourgeois sculptures.
I find a similar humor in Asger Carlsen’s bodies. In these photographs you see contortion taken to an extreme, both the forms and the design required to create them. Carlsen is playing with Photoshop and models. The Bechers went out and found things that others built, but their method is just as transformative as Carlsen’s. Don’t let large the format precision and neutral exposure distract you from the deeply weird shit in their photographs.
RIP Hilla Becher (1934-2015)