For nearly fifty years, Bernd and Hilla Becher photographed the industrial architecture of Western Europe, creating an archive of basic forms of the industrial era. Rendered with absolute precision in large format, medium-contrast gelatin silver prints, each structure is centered against a cloudless sky, filling the picture frame. The Bechers tended to arrange their photographs in grids or sequence them in monographs, a standardized presentation that facilitates a comparative analysis of form. Influenced by the objectivity of photographic practices between the two World Wars and embraced by practitioners of Minimalist and Conceptual art in the 1960s and 1970s, the systematic nature of their approach has become a recognizable style.
Born in Siegen in 1931, Bernd Becher studied painting and lithography at the State Art Academy in Stuttgart in the mid-1950s. Hilla Wobeser, born in Potsdam in 1934, trained and apprenticed as a commercial photographer. The two met in 1959 in Düsseldorf, where both attended the Art Academy. Together they began to photograph the industrial sites familiar to Bernd from his childhood. They married two years later. For the next four and a half decades, they collaborated on all aspects of their self-assigned project, documenting lime kilns, cooling towers, blast furnaces, winding towers, water towers, gas tanks, silos, and other industrial structures throughout Western Europe. Organizing prints into categories according to function, they emphasized a typological examination of structural form as a reflection of function in both exhibition and book formats.
Not least of the Bechers' legacy is their lasting influence on subsequent generations of artists who use the photographic medium today, most notably the students taught by Bernd Becher at the Düsseldorf Art Academy between 1976 and 1996. Among his most renowned students are Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth.