Hilla Wobeser Becher (1931 – 2015)
Hilla came from a family of photographers, including her mother and uncle who left Hilla his darkroom. She first trained as a commercial architectural photographer in Potsdam and then in Berlin, at Lette-Verein, the technical design school where her mother had studied. By then she was so skilled in operating heavy glass-plate cameras that she secured a three-year apprenticeship.
In 1954, she moved to Hamburg where she freelanced until 1957, when she was offered a job in Düsseldorf as an advertising photographer.
She enrolled at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf the following year where she met Bernd. After two years’ collaboration they married, spending the next forty years photographing the disappearing industrial architecture of Europe and North America. They taught generations of documentary photographers and artists including woman photographer Candida Höfer.
Their work has been defined as post-war conceptual art, following in the tradition of August Sander, framing Germany in an idealized melancholy past.
The first subject of their unique collaborative vision was the Framework Houses of Bernd’s home region of the Rhineland, which they photographed in 1959.
They went on to photograph other industrial structures, such as towers and tanks, and became known for their technical precision, termed both sculpture and industrial archaeology.
Their style and aesthetic was labelled the ‘Düsseldorf School’, after the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf where they taught for many decades.
Their works typically feature structures photographed frontally against a flat, grey background, which are then grouped in grids or ‘typologies’. In order to avoid shadows they photographed on cloudy days, lending their images a flat, ‘retro’ feel.
They used raised, large–format cameras and a long exposure time to achieve sharp detail when printed on finely grained paper.
An iconic example of their work, Typology of Water Towers (1972) at The Broad in LA, is six suites of grids, each featuring nine black-and-white photographs. It is one of the only complete Becher typologies displayed together in one trance-like installation.
By Paula Vellet