(This post was written by Max Kaisler, who just completed a summer editorial internship in the Ploughshares office.)
When you pick up the Jim Shepard issue of Ploughshares this fall, the first thing you’ll see is this image taken by photographer-couple team Bernd and Hilla Becher. At first glance, it doesn’t really spark the imagination. Clearly it’s some sort of industrial building (in fact it’s a water tower), a bulbous, steel mushroom, but nothing about it screams ‘Art.’ Water towers are all over the place. In a given cross-country road trip you pass a dozen without looking twice, let alone stopping for pictures, which would make about as much sense as setting out to photograph your telephone or the fire hydrant on your street. Why photograph a functional object that’s designed purely for its no-frills utility? Or if you’re bent on photographing that fire hydrant, why not dress the shot up with some artsy lighting and a vertiginous camera tilt? Why the straight-on, objective shot that the Bechers have chosen for their water tower? Where’s the art in that?
In the world of photographers you could call Bernd and Hilla Becher the industrial taxonomists. Over four decades they’ve captured and collected hundreds of images of industrial sites, as some people do butterflies. Together they’ve traveled the world compiling these photographs, all identically composed in that plainspoken, straight-on style. Then with these images in hand, they’ve composed their own exhaustive visual encyclopedia–they call them “typologies”–which they organize strictly by type of industrial facility.
The scope of these typologies is staggering. A table of contents to a Becher collection might include “Blasting Furnaces,” “Coal Mines,” “Framework Houses,” “Lime Kilns,” and “Grain Elevators,” to name a few, and when it comes to towers, you’re going to have to get a little more specific because they’ve got “Water Towers,” “Winding Towers,” and “Cooling Towers” (and I’m sure I’m leaving out others). And remember, these are all culled from dozens of sites throughout the world, to which the Bechers have accordingly flown, driven, hiked, and hauled.
To the right you’ll see an example segment of their “Winding Towers.” As you can see, the images are lined up in a straightforward grid, forming an orderly tic-tac-toe of towers from nine (probably) different industrial sites. What’s immediately striking is not how similar they look but how radically different. One tower encountered individually doesn’t raise an eyebrow (you probably wouldn’t pull over to photograph one of these, remember), but when you approach them all as a sort of family–the tower in the top middle looking patriarchal in what looks like a steel hat and spectacles, the tower in the bottom right looking small and scrappy–each assumes an unexpected personality. Even if you’re less prone to anthropomorphizing than myself, you can’t help drawing comparisons: This one’s broader, this one has latticed girders, this one has no crossbar on top. The longer you look the more distinct each unit looks. Leafing through a Becher book of typologies feels more like looking at a biological field study on sub-species than an art book. The Bechers’ photographs all have that same scientific objectivity–the absence of emotion, the meticulous uniformity of composition–and the dizzying variety within each of their industrial “species” reads like a survey of genetic traits.
But then again, what’s the point exactly? Why the decades of intensive collection? For the Bechers, it is, first off, an issue of time. When the Bechers began their work in 1959, industrial sites were beginning to close throughout Germany. From the start the work was driven by a desire to conserve a record of these sites in the face of their extinction. The photographs were not meant to be pro-industry, anti-industry, pro-labor, or to espouse any other political message but were meant to function as industrial artifacts, capable of standing without the prop of ideology.
But beyond their status as industrial relics, there’s a subtle brand of artistry at work, something deeper. Somehow when nine or twelve water towers are placed next to each other in that tic-tac-toe grid, they don’t look all that industrial. They have an unduplicated, crafted quality, as though each were designed with a singular personality. It sounds strange to talk about steel frames like this, I’ll admit, but if you look at one of those winding towers for long enough, it’s like you’re staring into its soul, struts and all.
The closest art I can compare these photographs to are the Dinggedichte, or thing-poems, of Rainer Marie Rilke. Rilke wrote about the souls of things–a Roman fountain, a statue’s head, a bowl of roses. His goal wasn’t description (the poetic equivalent of artsy lighting and camera angling) but transcribing the spirit of the object. It’s this same aim that elevates the Bechers’ work above industrial history or lexicography or some sort of glorified neurosis. In all their years of collecting, the Bechers have mastered the art of capturing the spirit of an object without tricks or gimmicks. They show it like it is, again and again, in black and white prose we can understand. At first we may not believe that a water tower is worthy of scrutiny. We are prepared to flip to the next page. But the photograph is persistent. This is a water tower, the photograph says. This is a water tower. It keeps on talking.
— Max Kaisler