In 1959, photography was still struggling to be an art form. Bernd and Hilla Becher were a young couple living in Düsseldorf, making conceptual art together. Bernd had studied painting and typography, while Hilla had completed an apprenticeship as a photographer. They began to collaborate, systematically taking pictures on an 8 x 10 of things that most people would overlook in their city – gas tanks, coal bunkers, cooling towers, shot on overcast days, early in the morning — hardly glamorous subjects, at a time when the world was beginning to go pop.
Though the couple’s conceptual art photography was having an impact across Europe, when Bernd began teaching photography at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1976 their legacy would begin to have a life far beyond their own work. It would become one of the most significant and influential movements in art photography’s 180-year history by completely overturning the function, aesthetic, and position of photography as an artistic medium.
Some of the most esteemed German artists of the 20th century were taught by the Bechers — including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth — and as the Städel Museum seeks to show in a new survey of works by the professors and nine of the alumni of the Becher class, there are others who are ripe for revisiting.
In more than 200 works, the exhibition reveals – in the same city it all began – the converging interests of the Bechers and their students, and their radical approach in their era: the Bechers in the 1960s and 70s, their students in the 80s and 90s. The group can roughly be recognised by a shared interest in an objective style, and by subjects shaped by their surroundings, the architecture and objects of industrial West Germany. Both Tata Ronkholz and Volker Döhne, for example, follow their teacher’s lead, turning their lens on the local landmarks and industry, shooting it in typologies that closely resemble the Bechers’ motifs.
Other artists, such as Thomas Ruff, also clearly inspired by the Bechers’ method of shooting in series, complicates the idea of documentary photography as presumed truth, an idea that resonates even more with photographers today. Axel Hütte too, elevates the camera to present more than simply surfaces: his explorations of architecture prod at concealed social interactions, while consciously referencing landscape painting of the past, blurring the lines between the two – something Gursky is equally renowned for – pushing photography into new terrain until today.
With moments that are painterly, minimalist, prosaic and poetic, this exhibition captures more than the vision of a generation of artists – it’s the moment photography became art.
‘Photographs Become Pictures. The Becher Class’ is on view from 27 April – 13 August. For more information, visit the Städel Museum website (opens in new tab)
60596 Frankfurt am Main,
VIEW GOOGLE MAPS (opens in new tab)
Charlotte Jansen is a journalist and the author of two books on photography, Girl on Girl (2017) and Photography Now (2021). She is commissioning editor at Elephant magazine and has written on contemporary art and culture for The Guardian, the Financial Times, ELLE, the British Journal of Photography, Frieze and Artsy. Jansen is also presenter of Dior Talks podcast series, The Female Gaze.
Definitive 1990s designer Martine Sitbon to return to Paris Fashion Week
Former Chloé creative director Martine Sitbon has announced she will return to Paris Fashion Week in March 2023 with a project titled Rev, which draws on her archival designs
By Jack Moss • Published
Louis Barthélemy’s tapestries capture the sublimity and dynamism of Senegalese wrestling
‘Mbër Yi / The Wrestlers’ at the Théodore Monod African Art Museum (IFAN) in Dakar sees French artist Louis Barthélemy respond to Senegalese mysticism in appliquéd hangings
By Emeline Nsingi Nkosi • Published
Braun and Kith rethink classic clock design
Dieter Rams and Dietrich Lubs’ original 1980s design is given a modern mood in the Kith for Braun BC 17 wall clock
By Hannah Silver • Published
Royal College of Physicians Museum presents its archives in a glowing new light
London photography exhibition ‘Unfamiliar’, at the Royal College of Physicians Museum (23 January – 28 July 2023), presents clinical tools as you’ve never seen them before
By Martha Elliott • Published
Museum of Sex to open Miami outpost in spring 2023
The Museum of Sex will expand with a new Miami outpost in spring 2023, housed in a former warehouse reimagined by Snøhetta and inaugurated with an exhibition by Hajime Sorayama
By Harriet Lloyd-Smith • Published
Artist Ian Cheng explores the technological and aesthetic potential of AI
In Berlin’s cavernous Halle am Berghain, New York-based artist Ian Cheng plunges viewers into an immersive world of AI and existential anime in ‘Life After BOB’
By Will Jennings • Last updated
Documenta 15 review: social practice, controversy and food for thought
Mired in evolving controversy, Documenta 15 has raised critical questions about transparency, accountability and creative freedom. Emily McDermott travels to Kassel to explore how an edition filled with social practice art urges active participation and throws global power structures into sharp relief
By Emily McDermott • Last updated
12th Berlin Biennale review: a fiercely political exploration of reparation and modern angst
As the Berlin Art Week festivities enter full swing (14-18 September) it's the last chance to see the 12th Berlin Biennale curated by Kader Attia. It tells a poignant, sometimes-crushing story of globally interconnected histories and the angst of modernity
By Hili Perlson • Last updated
Artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen on how VR can bring us closer to nature
Danish artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen leverages virtual reality technologies to reorient our relationship with the natural world.
By TF Chan • Last updated
Thomas Struth on the day he photographed the Queen and Prince Philip: ‘It was an experiment’
To mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, German artist Thomas Struth looks back on the moment he created a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip: ‘It’s an exotic part of my oeuvre because of who they are’
By Harriet Lloyd Smith • Last updated
Berlin art exhibitions not to miss: an ongoing guide
Explore our ongoing guide to the best Berlin art exhibitions
By Martha Elliott • Last updated