PARIS – Last month the German photographer Hilla Becher died at age 81, having survived her husband and creative partner by eight years. Her passing was a significant moment for photography, a medium that the couple had transformed with their innovative approach to documentary.

Born in 1934, Hilla was trained as a photographer, initially working for an aerial photography agency, and from 1957, for an advertising agency, where she met her future spouse and artistic partner Bernd Becher. Upon discovering a shared interest in industrial technology, the couple began photographing together in their spare time. They worked with no pretentions to artistry – instead the couple saw their photographs as documentary evidence, recording artefacts of a nearly bygone era. However, as they developed their format of ‘typology,’ where they presented a series of images of similar structures together, their work drew interest, and they began to be picked up by eminent galleries.

Heavyweights of photography, literally in terms of their industrial subject matter, but also in terms of their long and remarkable careers, the couple was highly influential in the creation of ‘The Dusseldorf School.’ Throughout the 1970s, they taught the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth, among others at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf.


Celebrating the extraordinary work and legacy of the Bechers, a rare typology by the couple will feature in the forthcoming Back to Black: Photographies sale in Paris. The year in which this work was made, 1972, marked not only the beginnings of their collaboration with the influential dealer Ileana Sonnabend and their first year at Documenta 5 but also the initial signs of their international recognition. In December of 1972 the American minimal artist Carl Andre published ‘A note on Bernhard and Hilla Becher’ in Artforum, bringing the couple to the fore and linking their work to conceptual and minimal art for the first time. The couple’s work bridged a gap between art and documentary that had previously seemed impassable.

There are several remarkable features of these nine water towers. They clearly display the Bechers’ idiosyncratic distancing effect, Entfremdungseffekt in German, through the taxonomical presentation of the structures. This is enhanced further by the identical composition in each ‘portrait,’ and the cold monumentality of these industrial dinosaurs. However, unlike their work in later years, their photographs are not yet stripped down to completely isolate the subject of the photographs from its environment. On closer inspection you can see the images include figures, pylons and wires.

This series is essential to an understanding of the development of the Bechers’ style as they move towards the purity of their later years. It was bought directly from the artists by Konrad Fischer gallery, who were the Bechers’ first gallery, and it is also extremely rare, with no other known series showing these funnel shaped water towers from the same period. Only one similar ‘typology’ exists in the collections of Deutsche Bank.