Bernd en Hilla Becher

Laureate Erasmus Prize 2002

Theme: Photo and Document

‘Photo and Document’ was the subject of the 2002 Erasmus Prize. The power of the image – to document, to persuade, or to move emotionally or artistically – is apparent and influential everywhere. The work of the laureates, Bernd and Hilla Becher, exhibits an unusual blend of documentation and fine art.

With great perseverance and consistency they have been engaged in a long-term project to document industrial architecture: mines, steel mills, water towers, factories, storage silos and warehouses. All their photographs are taken under the same neutral conditions. Nothing, not even the sky, distracts from the subject. The photographs are classified and grouped according to a strict plan. Presented in systematic series, they give a fascinating picture of the various forms possible for a particular structural function. By presenting photographs in this way, the Bechers have taken the step towards art. There is no longer a difference between documentary photography and art. Although it was not their original intention, their work has also become an important source of information for the study of industrial heritage. It is a unique project because when the Bechers started it, this sort of documentation received no aesthetic recognition at all. They have taken photographs not only in Germany but also elsewhere in Europe and in the United States.

Bernd Becher (1931-2007) and Hilla Becher (1934-2015) began to work together in 1959 and married two years later. The documentary-photographic style of Bernd and Hilla Becher has had a major influence on the younger generation of German photographers, such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer. One can rightly speak of the ‘Becher School’.

Bernd and Hilla Becher used their Erasmus Prize money to conserve and organize their work.