Tribute to the Bechers



The Bechers, as we now call them, were a couple of photographers who immortalized industrial architecture in pictures that treated each edifice as if it were an “anonymous sculpture”. Within the framework of an almost encyclopaedic mission, the Bechers added a whole new dimension to documentary photography and provided one of the driving forces behind the contemporary German art scene.

Hilla BECHER died on 10 October this year in Düsseldorf aged 81, joining her husband Bernd BECHER who died on 22 June 2007 aged 75. The couple (Bernd & Hilla BECHER) formed in 1959 when Hilla was already a photographer and Bernd Becher had been collecting pictures of industrial sites in his mining region since the age of 20. Thereafter, industrial architecture became their unique photographic obsession, following an almost fixed artistic protocol for 50 years.

An immutable protocol

Between their first joint album of photographs, Anonyme Skulpturen (anonymous sculptures), published in 1970, and their last photographs, little changed. Practically all their photographs followed the same rigorous approach: neutral black and white, frontal views, natural white lighting, high resolution via the use of large-format cameras and long exposure times. All anecdotal information is removed or avoided… no people, no animals… just architecture. The topics are water towers, cooling towers, silos, gasholders, mine shafts, blast furnaces, in short, all types of functional edifices, and over the years, the couple created typological series consisting of hundreds of industrial sites. The Bechers conducted their work with a high level of scientific rigor and considered their photographs as having an encyclopaedic vocation. Their work rapidly elicited international recognition for its documentary and heritage value, but also for its aesthetic and artistic value. In 1990, they were awarded the Grand Prize at the Venice Biennale… a sculpture prize for their photos! Indeed, the Western art world has consistently honoured their work for the past 30 years. Present in major museums around the world, their work has been widely appreciated in the United States for many years (the USA accounts for 47% of their auction turnover) and in European markets (the UK, Germany, France, and also occasionally in Spain and Italy).

Auction values?

Half of the photos produced by the couple Becher change hands for prices under $5,000 at auctions. This includes their offset prints (by definition less-valued), but not only. Although each Becher photo was taken within the framework of a “serial” logic (i.e. as part of a series), a number of individual silver prints circulate on the market (often in the formats 24 x 18 cm or 56 x 43 cm) and usually sell in this price range.
However, the Bechers understood that their pictures worked well in sets, so they created multiple montages, grouping their pictures into families, often in the form of compositions of 4, 9, or 15 of small format photos.
Besides the solitary prints and compositions, auctions sometimes offer whole series of photographs of the same industrial subject. A good set can reach a substantial price. The Bechers’ all-time auction record was generated by a series of 15 photographs on English mining (Fördertürme England (English Mineheads), 1966-1968) that fetched nearly $390,000 at Christie’s London in October 2014. While prices for the Bechers’ works have not shown any particularly strong speculative momentum, their best pieces have posted generous value accretions, particularly the complete historical series. Auction re-sales also show strong upside. Thus, the price of an old series (1976) of nine photographs, Cooling Towers, increased from $176,000 (incl. fees) at Phillips de Pury & Company, NY, on 11 November 2004 to $281,000 eight years later at Sotheby’s NY (12 December 2012).

Over the last fifteen years, the Bechers have never been sidelined by art and photography buyers. This is probably because their work has profoundly impacted the history of Contemporary photography and because their influence is still visible in the new generations of artists.
The Bechers have already left their mark on an entire generation of artists as teachers at the Düsseldorf Academy of Fine Arts. In 1958, they created a photographic studio in the city and Bernd Becher taught at the Dusseldorf Academy from 1976 to 1996. Nearly all of Germany’s most illustrious artists were students: Gerhard RICHTER, Bernhard Johannes BLUME, Sigmar POLKE and, among those who frequented the photography studio, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Candida HÖFER. They all acquired from the Bechers a certain taste for objectivity and contributed to a revival of German photography in the context of what is now known as the German school of photography.

In fact the prices of works by their former students have progressed faster than their own: the Bechers’ price index has posted an overall progression of 13% since 2000 whereas Thomas STRUTH’s index is up 67% and Thomas RUFF’s is up 73%. And, Andreas GURSKY, one of the most highly-rated Contemporary photographers in the world, has posted a price-index accretion of 121% over the same period.