“Just as cathedrals came out of the medieval world view and castles embody the feudal system, these edifices are to be seen as emanations of our time, as a self-representation of our society.”

— Bernd and Hilla Becher, 1971

Bernd Becher, Hilla Becher, Duisburg-Bruckhausen, Ruhrgebiet (1999)

Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photograph of the Thyssen Krupp steel mill in Duisburg is remarkable on its own terms. A formally ideal composition obtained from a cacophony of objects, shapes and angles, it depicts a frontier between two zones. But although the monochrome film and diffuse light is consistent with the grids of industrial structures for which the Bechers are renowned, the image, unlike those, brings into focus the urban context — allowing us to appreciate in great depth the actuality of the historical world whose decline they documented. Captured at the cusp of the millennium, long after the Ruhrgebiet began its slow decline as the industrial heartland of Western Europe, the image is also significant because, unlike the great majority of the Bechers’ subjects, the plant remains in operation today.

The Bechers’ ‘typologies’ of ‘anonymous sculptures’ — lime kilns, water towers, cooling towers, blast furnaces and gas tanks — provide a unique and vital panorama of the industrial age in Europe and North America. On the photographers’ own understanding, they are both ‘self-representations’ — the conscious stories, perhaps, that we tell about ourselves — and ‘emanations’ — not quite an archetype or a vernacular but an architectural form which crystallises an age, distilling its particular attitudes and stratifications. The couple’s creative partnership evolved over the years from 1959 into a rigorous aestheticization of utilitarian structures as they slipped into obsolescence. Their unsentimental approach in doing so recalls the pre-eminent photographers of New Objectivity (August Sander and Albert Renger-Patzsch in particular), a movement which emerged during the Weimar years in reaction to the sentimentalism and subjectivity of Expressionism.

In developing the typological method, the Bechers discovered through experimentation that a kind of tonal harmony could be generated from careful arrangement of particular forms. When apparently ascetic structures were presented alongside other instances of the same general type, their stylistic idiosyncrasies were suddenly rendered apparent — as with the ‘hats’ on French and Belgian winding towers.

Winding Towers, 1963–1992

In view of this capacity to emphasise and illuminate form, the typologies can be viewed from a standpoint of ‘disinterestedness’ — one of the essential characteristics of what Heidegger in ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’ (1936) calls the ‘aesthetic’ disposition. As theory, this conception emerged in antiquity; only with the advent of modernity did the practice of art also become aesthetic. Under its sway, artworks are deemed successful by virtue of their beauty alone — they possess an ‘aesthetic appeal’. Taking pleasure in the work’s ‘formal aspects, its qualities and charms’, the viewer essentially ‘brackets’ the political, social and ideological context. Such abstraction facilitates idle enjoyment and enables escapism but it is for Heidegger inimical to the creation of ‘great’ art — which discloses and embodies the meaning of being for an epoch. The Greek temple at Paestum is deployed as an example of an edifice which ‘opened up’ a world for a particular historical people:

‘It is the temple-work that first fits together and at the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace, endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for hu­man being. The all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this historical people.’

- Heidegger, ‘The Origin of the Work of Art’

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Paestum, 1778

In expressing the strife between ‘world’ (the horizon of horizons, that within which all our knowledge and perspectives is contained) and ‘earth’, (that which evades conceptual mastering — the unfathomable), the monument at the same time allowed ‘earth’ to be experienced as something that resists the will of humans. Central to Heidegger’s famous critique of technology is the contrasting view that the paradigms of the industrial age disclose a hubristic confidence that the earth can be mastered, that nature’s most capricious forces can be calculated, channelled and controlled. His fundamental point — that there is a historicity to ontology, that our understanding of what it means to be shifts over time — is predicated on the irreversible ‘decay and withdrawal’ of historical worlds.

In this light, the Bechers’ work can be read as a visual testament to the decay of an ineffable worldview and the triumph of ‘enframing’ — that way of revealing which frames the world as ‘standing reserve’. Their anonymous sculptures encapsulate the perceptions and attitudes of the industrial revolution: domination of nature, the expectation of limitless growth, continual innovation.

Structural change: Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord (Benedict Flett)

Much of the resonance when engaging with the typologies today lies in their representation of a superseded world, a time increasingly alien to us. Even the most stereotypically modern of the Bechers’ subjects, cooling towers, are now routinely felled to spectacular effect. The industrial age is by no means transcended: blast furnaces, coal-fired power plants and massive chemical works are an enduring feature of the landscape in transition and emerging economies especially. Modernisation is, in short, uneven, variegated and non-linear. But in the West at least, the decay and withdrawal of the historical world in which the Bechers intervened is at an advanced stage. In the ‘core’ economies of the Global North, the possession of information, rather than material resources, is increasingly the driving force behind societal development.

The shift from machinery to information, from manufacturing to services, is dramatised at industrial heritage sites such as Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord and SteelStacks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania — a city whose prime was immortalised by Walker Evans (1935), and then recaptured by the Bechers (1986) in a way that speaks to the power of photography to string together places in a chain of significance. In an interview filmed towards the end of his life, Bernd Becher remarked that he and Hilla had spent their career documenting the ‘sacred buildings of Calvinism’. But it is perhaps only now, after their silencing, that the great rusting apparatuses, partially reclaimed by nature, can be appreciated as somehow hallowed spaces.

Their repurposing can be situated within what Andreas Huyssen has described as ‘a new postmodern temporality which hovers between the need for memory and the rapid pace of forgetting’ (1995:254).On this view, a kind of memorial sensibility emerged in the late twentieth century in response to the quickening pace of material change on the one hand, and the proliferation of images and information on the other. But the urge to ‘heal and understand’ the industrial past is surely also rooted in a recognition that its ‘sacred’ spaces were once at the centre of a historical world in Heidegger’s sense.

To the millions who worked and lived in their shadow, daily routines were tuned to the rhythms of mass production. And in the same way that cathedral spires dominated the medieval horizon, chimneys, cooling towers and mineshafts loomed above the landscape in the Ruhr region, the South Wales Valleys, the Rust Belt states and the other heavily industrialised areas the Bechers visited.

But while the latter manifested the idea that humanity is the sole master of its destiny, cathedrals embodied the medieval view that the world was there for humans only by divine will. In Facades (2008–17), Dresden-born photographer Markus Brunetti serialises great devotional structures in immense clarity. As the period’s highest form of artistic expression, constructed sometimes over decades of toil, every part of these buildings — Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish — was adorned and embellished to make the space worthy of God: stained glass windows far out of sight, exquisite masonry in rafters and above vaults. Like the Greek temple of antiquity, these edifices were intrinsic to the ‘setting-up’ of medieval Christendom.

In its scope, composition and presentation, Brunetti’s work is redolent of the Bechers’. But his method is sharply distinct. Over the course of a year or more, he laboriously stitches together thousands of high-resolution photos of a single facade to bring forth an impossible vision. By removing people, cars, lampposts and other modern ‘noise’ from the final image, he seeks, like the Bechers, to reveal the structures themselves. In effect, Facades synthesises the encyclopaedic ambition of Neue Sachlichkeit, the search for cultural paradigms, and the digital manipulation typical to many of the Bechers’ most successful students (Gursky’s ‘Paris, Montparnasse’ is indicative). And, in a certain sense, Brunetti also aestheticises the obsolete: although these buildings remain the spiritual heart of cities and sometimes nations, no longer do they illuminate what is and what matters to those living in their shadow.

Although their original use and appearance remains largely unaltered, our collective orientation towards them has been radically transformed — as is manifest in Thomas Struth’s ‘Milan Cathedral’, a photo which seems especially pervaded by the death of God when viewed alongside Brunetti’s digital mosaic of the same edifice — bored tourists sit on the steps licking ice-creams while locals stride past clutching phones and briefcases. As much an attraction today as a place of worship, the cathedral has been to an extent profaned — stripped of both its spiritual magnetism and relative architectural dominance.

Until 1894, when Ulm Minster was surpassed by Philadelphia City Hall, the world’s tallest building was always a church or cathedral. Today, of course, the collective imagination’s most imposing and audacious structures are skyscrapers, the concentration of which began rapidly to increase in the command-and-control centres of the global economy as the structural shift gathered pace. The regeneration of post-industrial sites like Canary Wharf, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and, more recently, New York City’s Hudson Yards can be conceived as the obverse of the preservation of industrial heritage sites — places where the past is renounced and forgotten in a forest of shimmering vertical forms.

These triumphalist monoliths, as totems of financialisation and economic liberalisation, are the obvious candidates to symbolise our age. Their increasingly irregular or adventurous designs testify to the need for global cities to forge a ‘brand’ so as better to compete in the struggle for highly mobile flows of capital, jobs and people. So, in a certain sense, they disclose the (theoretical) economic orthodoxy of the times: competition is the natural order of things and it should be enabled and protected by the state. But it would be wrong to analogise them to one of Brunetti’s cathedrals: as points where capital feeds on itself, they also embody a kind of postmodern nihilism.

David Plowden, World Trade Center, New York City, 1972

Insofar as they manifest an understanding of being in which humans are masters of their own destiny, they can more easily be compared to the Bechers’ building-machines. Both are also defined by a certain anonymity: although typically designed by internationally acclaimed ‘starchitects’, skyscrapers’ sweeping surfaces give no immanent indication of the kind of activities that take place beyond. And as the events of 2020 have thrown into relief, the value produced within these buildings is not dependent upon their physical existence. More statements of power and prestige than essential economic apparatuses, the total virtualisation of trading floors has exposed the paradigmatic structures of neoliberalism as empty vessels.

To an extent, then, the partial supersession of machinery by information has engendered a kind of separation of form and function. Underlying the intangible trades and transactions is a more fundamental emanation, a layer of infrastructure in which the materiality of the World Wide Web can be encountered — vast warehouses of computers, transmission masts, submarine cables. In the photo below from Taryn Simon’s An American Index of the Hidden and Unfamiliar (2007), the subject is framed with the same objectivity as one of the Bechers’ water towers. From a systems standpoint, this particular segment of the transatlantic cable is of no special consequence — an extreme close-up of a great oceanic axon, strung between continents.

But, as the artist elicits so well, there is something quite profound about the scene: inside the sheaths, which form a continuous connection for thousands of miles, are hundreds of twisted pairs conveying a full spectrum of information, from the inane to the critical, at incomprehensible speeds across the Atlantic. This feeling is evoked not only by the meta-content but seems almost inscribed into the apparatus itself. In this restricted facility, the danger of anyone tampering with the bundle-ladder is presumably remote. And yet, fenced off from the rest of the room, albeit in the cheapest and most functional way, the cables are conferred a kind of dignity, as though they were a priceless sculpture in a usually crowded museum.

Taryn Simon, ‘Transatlantic Sub-marine Cables Reaching Land VSNL International Avon, New Jersey’, 2007
From Connie Zhou, Technology

Insofar as they embody a degree of anonymity more extreme than even the Bechers’ sculptures, these unassuming racks of telecommunications and data-storage equipment, blinking under harsh lights, are not a ‘self-representation of our society’ in the same way as the World Trade Center was. But, amidst the din of high-veolcity cooling fans, it is in them and objects like them that we confront the real of our historical moment. This presents clear difficulties in updating the Bechers’ project.

In contrast to the emanations of industrial society, which were never too far from consciousness, those of the digital age are hidden away under seabeds and brought into communion in nondescript corporate warehouses. They are almost impossible to encounter casually or by happenstance. And with the growing sophistication of ‘lights out’ data centres, which can be operated entirely remotely, the need for the hardware to be perceived by even those who operate it is increasingly obviated.

In the introduction to Anonyme Skulpturen (1969), the Bechers described the experience of driving through the Ruhrgebiet:

‘…one experiences an image of forms overlapping one another, from a chaos of housing estates and technical apparatuses. Steam, smoke and fire result in peculiar forms that overlay some [of these objects] and obfuscate others. The photographic technique makes it possible to release individual forms from their environment, to make them comprehensible and to compare them to one another.’

From a chaotic, dynamic landscape, punctuated with such spectacles as cooling towers letting off great billowing steam clouds at regular intervals, they derived visual order and harmony. From disparate particulars, they enabled appreciation of the universal forms of the industrial revolution. And in doing so, they helped make sense of a world in which things were comparatively more susceptible to inexpert understanding: standardised procedures, inputs and outputs. Aisles of servers in data centres, by contrast, can be analogised to the human brain perceived by a neurosurgeon mid-operation: it appears to the observer that there is ‘nobody there’ — just inert matter.

But out of them emanates the ‘cloud’ — central to our lives and yet noumenal, mostly imperceptible and almost impossible to grasp. These are not the dark mills driving climate breakdown — though their consumption of (dirty) energy is vast. But even as they expand by leaps and bounds the realm of the knowable, they also anchor the condition of communicative abundance which functions systematically to produce its own negation, leading in turn to increased polarisation and the fragmentation and colonisation of the public sphere.

Ultimately, it seems likely that the social and cultural importance of photography will be protected by the medium’s unique epistemic privilege — its ‘mind-independence’. But, to the extent that it can no longer keep pace with the rate of dematerialisation and repressive desublimation, this search for cultural paradigms also suggests, perhaps, that, if practitioners wish to be fully in touch with the ‘modern’, they should embrace and confront the excess of the digital void — even if that means doing so without a camera.

‘Cathedral’ from Thomas Ruff’s JPEGS (2006)

Cambridge grad, photographer and writer. Interested in social theory, image networks, the post-Soviet space.

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