The Dream Factory

For nearly forty years, a strange German couple has been photographing the great gray ghosts of 20th-century industry. But it's not so easy to see the "monumentary" in your own backyard.

Life in a big city is by and large a prescription for numb oblivion, a fugue-state stupor whose onset is precipitated by a paradoxical combination of overstimulation and paralyzing boredom. In such a state, of course, you're indisposed to notice much of anything and this affliction is unquestionably a primary component of any definition of modern malaise. Midwestern winters don't much help matters, as a rule; in the gunmetal, fish-belly gray light of a March morning, consciousness in and of itself can be a tall order. Entire weeks seem to pass in a sort of exhausted empirical blackout, which is precisely what makes the cold-light-of-day visual revelations I've been having lately so damn startling.

What I'm talking about are those instances when something you've looked at a thousand times or lived with forever suddenly strikes you as wholly unfamiliar or alarmingly transmogrified. You'll notice a house on your block that you could swear you've never really seen before, for instance. Or you'll find yourself writing and rewriting a familiar word --wound, by way of example--because the spelling doesn't seem quite correct or the very architecture of each individual letter and even the whole puzzling concept of sense stuns you like a miracle you have simply taken too much for granted to ever properly recognize.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but for the last several weeks I've been having these disorienting moments almost every day. Trolling for a parking space in the crowded jungle of industrial buildings west of downtown I found myself momentarily jarred into consciousness by the astonishing bulk of the old International Harvester building (at 700 Washington Avenue North) with its mysterious brick tower rising high above the street. A day later I double-parked and gawked, incredulous, at the Sherwin Williams building on North Third Street, puzzling over its absurdly ornate entryway with its cement columns and gable topped with what appears to be a globe being obliterated with dripping paint. I also noticed the imposing brick-and-tile façade and dark glass-block windows of the Lansing Company/Bookmen building on the same street. I'd never so much as looked at any of these places in my life, despite the fact that I have parked in their shadows for years and driven past them on countless occasions.

These revelations, I realized, were prompted by months spent staring into the photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher. For almost four decades the Bechers have traveled all over the world documenting all manner of industry and obsolescence, and in their huge and sprawling body of work--stark and disorienting black and white images of water towers, blast furnaces, industrial façades, mine heads, coal mine tipples, silos, and grain elevators--they subject these most prosaic (yet mysterious) of structures to a disarmingly objective scrutiny.

The Bechers, a German husband-and-wife team who work individually and in tandem (none of their photos is ever individually credited, and the couple also speaks as one in interviews), have applied their singular vision and a weird obsessive purity to documenting the anonymous industrial monuments that have been such a huge part of the modern landscape. The plainspoken titles of their monographs--Gas Tanks, Water Towers, and Mineheads, among others (all on MIT Press)--don't begin to do justice to the multiform wonders that emerge on page after page in these bizarre collections.

Throughout their career the Bechers have isolated their subjects through close cropping, abstracting them from their environment, and reducing them to a sort of mute vernacular. The result of this approach has almost been to elevate these edifices to the position of sacred architecture. But, no, not almost: In the Bechers' photos many of these forms are as beautiful, elaborate, and awe-inspiring as any Gothic cathedral. They photograph the structures--whether a water tower or an industrial façade--with a fussy neutrality, eschewing sunlight, shadow, and stylish angles. A Becher image is generally marked by a surreal and wholly unpopulated sense of overcast desolation. In this regard the Bechers are photographers squarely in the German tradition, and their impassive treatment of their subjects recalls August Sander's stoic portraits of anonymous citizens or Karl Blossfeldt's architecturally precise studies of plants.

For the most part the Bechers have presented their work in monographs built around a single subject, with photographs displayed side by side on facing pages, and minimal text and captioning. These "monumentaries," as University of Ottawa aesthetics professor Thierry de Duve has called them, have a cumulative discomfiting power. In their strangely abstracted contexts the Bechers' photographs blur the distinctions between urban and rural, and the familiar and the surreal. From page to page you find yourself responding differently. One minute you're thinking this is all very prosaic, a catalog of the banal, and a moment later everything gets turned around in your head and you get lost for half an hour in the mysterious, myriad details of a photograph. The dark tangle of a blast furnace--odd angles of jutting ducts and the erector set dada of impossibly jumbled catwalks and scaffolding--looks like a nightmare from the sketchbooks of H.R. Giger. A jury-rigged Pennsylvania coal-mine tipple, with its crazed network of wooden struts and appearance of absolute instability and improvisation, suggests one of Andy Goldsworthy's organic, temporary sculptures cobbled together out of material found in nature. Wholly ignorant as to what any of the industrial artifacts in the Bechers' images actually do, or how they work, you're left to contemplate them as objects of pure, idiot wonder.

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