read by Dr A.H.G. Rinnooy Kan, President, in the name of His Royal Highness Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, Patron of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation.
Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Dear mrs and mr Becher,
While reading the many learned and artistic introductions to your work, one is struck by the number of words needed by such expositions in order to put your work in context, and, consequently, also to understand you as professional artists. Clearly, it is not so simple to find a concise formulation for what is so special in what you are doing, and what makes the result so exceptional.
I am going somewhat further: perhaps we should not wish to find one. We should perhaps accept that giving a brief characteristic is not reasonable. Too many aspects play a role. Moreover, you are more or less hiding behind your work and are avoiding subjective, personal interpretations. This appears to be a conscious choice. Often the term style-less, without personal style, is used. This looks like an unfortunate expression, as it may be taken to point to a deficit, or even a lack of taste in your work. One expects that a photographer earns renown by creating a recognizable, explicitly personal style and making it his trademark.
You have always avoided subjective rendering, romanticism and special light effects. Only once you have chosen a clear concept, that of a central, mostly frontal rendering of the object in a diffuse light, a slightly elevated standpoint, in black and white on large format; an arrangement of the objects in groups and series, thus allowing a comparison of the repertoire of forms of industrial architecture. There is not a single element that distracts from the central object. During the last forty years or so you have gone your own way without compromising with fashions. In your view the work has to speak for itself and you restrain from giving a comment. The spectator is confronted with a building, not with a photograph and not with a photographer, or even a couple of photographers. He is left alone with the object or alone on an industrial area.
But the spectator does not just see one building. He sees series of buildings. And he views them not only from one side, but from all sides. He is guided around the building. He sees large numbers of them; compares them; sees resemblances and small differences. The order in which photos are displayed in an exhibition hall or in a book is not arbitrary. You have ordered the plates in such a way that typologies arise: the same basic forms with variations in small details, carefully arranged. The spectator is forced to focus attention on the details which make out the difference or resemblance of the representation. In the introduction to an exhibition catalogue, Thierry de Duve explains the elimination of each personal style, so characteristic for the Bechers’ work, as a way ‘to better release the impersonal aesthetics. Once you become sensitive to this, what comes is awe, the pleasure of discovery, the joy of learning and comparing.’ The spectator who at first had no specific interest in watertowers or mineheads, suddenly looks at these buildings with different eyes. Buildings he previously hardly looked at, let alone that he attached any value to them. But now he is captivated by the magic of repetition or almost-repetition. In his mind, the next watertower he sees, will be arranged in a typology, on the basis of external features, just as he has seen in the photo series of the Bechers. Actually, something miraculous has then happened: these watertowers have gained their own place in the consciousness of the observer. The watertower or factoryhall can now be appreciated as an intrinsically valuable object. In such an experience of the built environment, the building has acquired monumental value. The development of objects, which were made for purely functional reasons, into objects with a sculptural quality, lends the profane industrial architecture an artistic importance the makers could hardly have dreamed of. The typologies of seemingly boring utilitarian buildings, which when viewed on their own may not seem very exciting, have had the effect that we have begun to look at these building with a different eye.
This brings me back to the subject matter of your work: industrial architecture and other utilitarian buildings. Today, many historians of architecture and lovers of culture are grateful that you have documented this great amount of buildings in such a systematic and careful manner. Monuments of the old economy they are called. Through your work a great number of building complexes have been documented which have been demolished long since and which now only exist on your photos. But it is good to realise that this enterprise – a long term enterprise indeed – was started without the intention or wish that such buildings of the last century should all be preserved. There was nothing romantic to it. The project should rather be characterised by a cool, scientific approach. The observation is unpersonal, analytic and systematic and always the same. This gigantic project was started at a time, at the end of the 1950s, when historians of architecture did not dare to show an interest for engineers’ architecture and when industrial archeologists were mainly investigating technical processes.
Can representation of reality, the realm of documentary photography, be regarded as art? On the one hand, the buildings were recorded as you found them, on the other hand it is you who made the image. You have given shape to the reality in front of the camera from behind the camera. So in this sense photography as a medium is as artistic as painting or sculpture and hence is an artistic process. Photography may be limited as far as one can manipulate the picture, but in terms of depicting structures and space, it is ten times more effective than any painted or drawn image (Thomas Ruff). In 1981, the then director of the Stedelijk van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven, Rudi Fuchs observed that the question of whether the work of the Bechers is art, is not really of interest. Only artists could start this project. Apparently it was only they who could find the motivation to start it and to persist in this tedious work. To keep this slow and tiresome process going is a dreadfully difficult task. Probably the Bechers have only been able to persist thanks to the artistic structure and motivation of the enterprise. This motivation, mr and mrs Becher, apparently is still fully alive, given your untiring activity.
Mr and mrs Becher, you are internationally renowned as the founders of the new, documentary photography. You have founded a school by training a series of young photographers in Düsseldorf. You have transferred your vision and attitude to three generations of photographers. Pupils among whom Thomas Ruff, Axel Hütte, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gurski, Petra Wunderlich, Georg Sasse, Candida Höfer and the youngest, Simone Nieweg and Laurenz Bergis, have each in their own way, enriched and further developed the tradition of ‘objective photography’. An unusual concentration of talent has formed around your classes at the Düsseldorfer Kunstakademie. A substantial and internationally renowned group of photographers was the result, photographers who in their turn have given a sharp profile to the face of the early 21st century.