I’ve long been an admirer of the brilliant couple Bernd and Hilla Becher – who did pioneering photographic work, starting from when they met, as young photography students in the late fifties. Their initial studies of purpose built structures were sentimentally motivated – trying to capture the disappearing industrial architecture of the intensely developed Ruhr Valley which they knew so well.
It was only after they began this project that they began to notice the sophistication of design, the interesting harmonies and compositions of forms and from this they began a very long series of works, which ultimately formed a whole new branch of photography – Photographic Typologies.
It’s hard for me to imagine that the ultimate result doesn’t owe a lot to the fact that Bernd (like Steve Jobs) studied Typography – one of those very rare disciplines of study that goes way in close on detail, but also full-culture meta. The philosophical depth of their approach speaks to this also – nothing random whatsoever, which could be controlled by planning and refined intention.
They shot with a large view camera (8×10 analog film negatives) and worked only early, on overcast days, to avoid detail obscuring shadows, and from very straight-on angles, which meant that their photographs revealed a maximum of family similarity between design approaches and built forms.
Their work was really surprising when it first appeared, because (aside from the then largely exhausted “Ashcan” school of painters) very few had paid attention to the aesthetics of purpose built industrial structures – and even then, almost never without significant ironic critique implicit.
It also has to be said that their photographic technique was in every case exquisite – and this massive respect imparted strange beauty (or perhaps allowed the qualities which always had been there, to emerge at last).
Not only were their multi-year projects “Anonyme Skulpturen: Eine Typologie technischer Bauten” and “Typologien, Industrieller Bau, 1963-1975” artistic masterpieces (and genuine best-sellers, in the art book world), they changed the way people looked at industrial structures profoundly – and a great deal of the modern recognition of their design qualities and architectural merit flows from the work of this amazing couple, and their keen searching vision.
It was by no means inevitable that factories would become beloved, much like our more overtly appealing old sandstone and marble columned palaces!
There have also been uncountable photographic Typologies produced since, some of them highly informative or visually exquisite, and some bizarre in the extreme (like the compendium of every lookout post for the occupying British Army in Northern Ireland, depicted from the same Helicopter altitude).
Likewise, the idea of approaching very large subjects with a clinical clean ultra documentary approach continues to show up in the important work of Edward Burtynsky – whose Anthropocene environmental imagery has truly extraordinary impact, despite the comparatively thin and meandering commentary in the film which was made of the same visual subject matter.
I haven’t got a plate camera or a pack-mule spouse (beasto burden is my job), my travelling budget is shoe-leather and a subway token, and while I do photograph everything industrial I can, there’s very little of the juiciest stuff left in Toronto – most of the last clutch of holdouts were knocked down between my final analog roll last century and first DSLR, a couple of years ago.
But I do think I may at least have spotted my own small special subject for a slow-building cumulative typography – and the bonus fun is that it’s not an object, but instead a long-seasoned erasure, which I’m attempting to record.
I’m hereby designating it “The Mason’s Rook” and I have to say that since my first discovery of this threshold visual phenomenon, I’ve been turning them up all over town – especially in the old brick warehouses and factories that have been converted into glitzy commercial or residential ‘lofts’, or incorporated into other buildings entirely since (as frighteningly few have not).
Can’t help wondering what a huge number of them might ultimately say about the transformation of our venerable structures over time.
Also can’t stop wondering – how many generations separated the masons who crafted those light-giving windows so well, from the ones who bricked them all in again, and shut out the light for good?