Gil Blank
Misc Fields
Though a book-length analysis of the Becher oeuvre has been long overdue considering the importance and influence of the artists, it’s hard to fault Susanne Lange for taking her time—nearly ten years—in coming to publication with hers. Few if any other photographers have built so vast and systematic a life’s work, and the prospect of adequately charting its dimensions would require an act of equally daunting scholarship. For a specialist like Lange, if the project seemed a natural one—she first compiled an earlier monograph on the Bechers while working at the Museum für Modern Kunst in Frankfurt/Main, went on to write her Ph.D. thesis on them, and then continued for years to collaborate closely with the pair as director of the August Sander archive, itself integral as part of the Becher lineage—she never let that devolve into a lapse of careful attention paid to the task.


Lange’s superb text is broken down into sections including biographical notes, previously unpublished personal documentation, explanations of shooting techniques, an exhaustive chronology of works, and copiously supplemented comparisons to artistic precedents. Further, there are extensive interviews, full bibliographies, and a generous selection of accompanying photographic plates. Plainly put, the book is an invaluable addition to any serious study of contemporary photography: impeccably researched and meticulously documented, it will easily become the primary reference on the working methods of this crucial team. Published by MIT Press in a format clearly in keeping with the serial monographs released under the same house by the Bechers themselves—Grain Elevators, the latest such volume and characteristically splendid, is due to be published simultaneously—Lange’s big book is also a pleasure to read, see, and hold.


All that accomplishment naturally leaves you wondering what if anything could be left wanting on such an occasion. Which, in a phrase, would be critical distance, if not in fact any kind of critique at all. Lange seems to be either so imbedded within the Becher sphere, or else so convinced of their preferred (if always slightly peculiar) notion of attainable objectivity, that she never seizes on her fortunate position to craft a robust and critical analysis. Either out of respect for or in odd kinship with the artists, but effectively to our wider detriment, she approaches her subjects with the same self-conscious neutrality of voice that the Bechers do theirs. Remarkably, she never arrives at the understanding that there is a dimension of intrinsic passivity (or at least automation) to the photographic mechanism that distinguishes it from the fundamentally inductive act of writing, an act which, when used to describe artistic production, reflexively leads to the articulation of a critique. Lange’s monumental gains in the area of factual research are offset by the lost chance (I might even say responsibility) for sorting out what the larger Becher project ultimately amounts to for us as a public. There is perceivable in that shortfall an unstated poignancy endemic to the national German identity that Lange shares with the Bechers, the inescapable ramifications of which lie beneath so much of what all three have achieved, but to suggest as much would be to venture precisely the kind of assaying that the dual works of the photographs and the writing so fastidiously seek to remain silent about.


© Copyright Gil Blank

Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work by Susanne Lange
Published by The MIT Press

Originally published in Art On Paper magazine, Volume 11, Number 4, 2007.