Friends' Houses and Bechers' Industrial Typologies
Revisiting a black and white photo series I shot last year through a retrospective on Hilla and Bernd Becher
When I first saw the work of Hilla and Bernd Becher in my film photography class senior year of college, I remember being inexplicably drawn to the repetitive black and white grids of factories, water towers, and blast furnaces arranged in groups of 9, 15, 20. They reminded me of the childhood “spot the difference” exercises, where two seemingly identical images would be placed side-by-side for you to point out the slight differences peppered throughout the page. Perhaps it was this invitation to play a game that drew me to take a pause: “this tower has three stilts while this one as only two… and this plant has the same windows as this one, but just an inch to the right.” Suddenly, the set of windows on gravel plants looked like a pair of eyes, and the upside down triangle on a cooling tower a toothy grin. These mundane structures that I had previously driven past on the highway without a second glance now transformed into characters with hidden histories. These structures told a story about humanity’s united front: to think that across the world, so many people had built such similar water towers!
I was also drawn to the simplicity of the couple’s mission. The Bechers wanted to immortalize the industrial landscapes across Europe and the US that were fast disappearing under technological development. This mission is executed with painstaking precision and persistence. Imagine: traversing the forgotten industrial countryside in a VW bus, lugging around bulky cameras and stepladders to get the perspective just right, and meticulously shooting at the same time each day so the angle of the sun and quantity of the light would create a uniform level of contrast and exposure across subjects. And to dedicate your entire career of 40+ years doing so! Their work is not only an artistic feat, but an astronomical demonstration of resilience and discipline. The epitome of this spirit is “Winding Towers (1966-1997)”, a single typology captured more than 30 years apart.
Their work also challenges what is considered art. When the Bechers won the top award at the Venice Biennale in 1990, they were recognized not for Photography but Sculpture. This was in part because the Bechers’ endeavor was, by nature, heavily conceptual but also out of necessity: photography wasn’t really “art” yet.
All of this is to say that I was thoroughly elated when my friend sent me the flyer showing a retrospective on the couple's work was currently on at the SFMoma.
Of course, they were much more magical in person. For one, they were larger than I expected. When laid out side by side on a single computer screen, the 30 individual photograph are perceived as a collective. Close up, they are intricate and complex. There’s no better feeling than seeing something you read about in an esoteric seminar class four score and seven years ago — fuzzy on the edges and balancing on the the very precipice of your memory — in real life. It feels good to let the inspiration wash over you all over again, like listening to your favorite album for the first time.
It also feels good to be able to point to something and say: “that! I was inspired by that! And I made something because of it.” Greatness through proximity. Delusions of grandeur. Well here is my grand delusion! Isn’t art, after all, just many people, some of them acclaimed, most of them like you and me, pointing at something and yelling at it? Art is a big asterisk, an exclamation point, a red felt tipped marker circling through the world.
As the end to my senior year in college inched closer, I took a lot of photos of of my friends’ houses on my film camera. Inspiration often works in the background, and I felt inexplicably drawn to the classic New England structures that me and my friends called home.
(In the end, I ended up mailing each photo to the friend who lived in the home it captured — complete with a handwritten letter on the back. I like to think it was half out of sentimentality, and half a completion of my artistic project.)
Inspired by the Becher’s typology of industrial buildings, I shot a series on Providence houses capturing the classic triple-decker in its multitude of forms. These houses first sprung up between 1870 and 1910 during the boom of New England mill towns. To the influx of immigrants, these homes offered a path to home ownership and a share of the white picket-fence American dream, as many could live in one unit and rent out the other two.
The triple-decker has risen, fallen and risen again from the ashes — in many cases literally as their wooden frames were often fire traps while in others because they drew the undying spite of housing reformers who found them to be nasty places to live.
More than 100 years since they were first built, we moved in. Instead of an influx of immigrants, it was now a hoard of student — the children of those immigrants — who were inflating the housing market beyond affordability.
With a new set of tenants came new vessels for dreams. For many of us, this was our first signed lease. To have our own house like this! Posters on cinder-block dorm room walls no longer; the sound of our parents’ shouts on our tails us as we romped through the hallways no more!
We worked, slept and played under these roofs. But unlike the true Providence residents before us who had envisioned a life on Power Street or Young Orchard Avenue, we were just passing by: in just a decade, the counters had seen 10 different sets of momentos, the walls infused with aromas of Shakshuka, pasta, Bobotie, Hot Pot, and empanadas from dozens of families’ cookbooks, and the ceilings caved in by hundreds of pairs of feet.
Just as quickly as we moved in, we were gone. Furniture sold to the next bright-eyed tenant. A new series of paintings on the walls and a new set of memories on the fridge door. Do you think the house remembers?
Typologies are documentations. We obsessively document to battle the fragility of “forever.” Maybe if we write enough down and take enough photographs, some images in our mind will always retain their smell and taste.