“Bernd & Hilla Becher: A Survey – 1972-2006”

Pub date June 30, 2009
WriterAva Jancar
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

REVIEW The problem, or perhaps the benefit, of a survey of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher in an environment like the Fraenkel Gallery is the institutional quality the space projects onto the work. Although a sense of sterility is key to the Bechers’ photography, and while it can be contended that the 49 Geary Street site only accentuates the Bechers’ attempt at objectivity, such a setting also brings the success of the work in the marketplace to the fore, rather than providing a hermetic environment in which to operate.

This conundrum is interesting in light of the deadpan documentation of the water towers, grain elevators and blast furnaces that are the subject of the Bechers’ black-and-white photographs and, seemingly, the Fraenkel show. Arranged in grids for side-by-side comparison, each industrial structure is consistently the same size within its frame. As a result, there is a sense of impartiality, which prompts a discourse between the documented structures and, more broadly, between each photograph. The Bechers’ appear to be simultaneously operating within a system and outside a system. They implement something akin to a turn-of-the-century scientific classificatory technique in which the camera is used to document a subject’s unique features, but they also aestheticize the subject.

Bit the neutral stance of the Bechers’ photographs eschews Blossfeldt-like modeling. Instead, it appears to take cues from the Bauhausian model — one in which the built environment was celebrated, along with the camera, as archetypically modern. Yet while both styles of photography might be influences (perhaps especially so because of the couple’s respective academic training), the Bechers’ photography consistently removes clear reference points. Because of this, the stance of the gallery in which the work is exhibited becomes more apparent. Despite its prime examples from — and comprehensive look at — the German couple’s work, this survey situates their photography within a historical context rather than accentuating its conceptual relevance.

BERND & HILLA BECHER: A SURVEY — 1972-2006 Through Fri/3. Tues–Fri, 10:30–5:30 a.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Fraenkel Gallery, 49 Geary, SF. (415) 981-2661. www.fraenkelgallery.com