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.

This world, the Bechers' world, doesn't seem quite real, quite possible. The things we see are simply too strange, the visions of the most dystopic science-fiction imagination, or, alternately, the work of crazed outsider artists working on a truly industrial scale. This is precisely, I suppose, because there's no context, and one image faces another, and these are preceded and followed by still others, until you're no longer able to process anything you see as even remotely familiar.

It's dangerously easy to get lost in the Bechers' photos, while at the same time losing your place in the recognizable world. It's also easy, turning the pages of these monographs, to miss the inspired variety amid the cumulative and deceptive sense of uniformity, the utter strangeness of so many of these portraits, the formal repetition and austerity offset by queerly buttressed towers, arches, ornate cupolas, and bizarrely stylized façades. There are huge gas tanks girdled by elaborate iron scaffolding, to the point that at first glance they resemble nothing so much as an old amusement-park roller coaster. The water towers range from medieval-looking brick structures topped with detailed porticoes to the more familiar streamlined and bulbous monstrosities of the Midwest, which still seem inspired by nothing so much as the futuristic visions of the 1950s.

Only by pulling back and reasserting the objects of the Bechers' photography in their proper context can you begin to see the extent to which so much of their work has been about dislocation. In their most recent collection, Industrial Landscapes, the Bechers reveal that the things they have spent more than 40 years looking at so closely and obsessively are actually part of a bigger, even more confusing and disorderly industrial complex. They are part of communities, in other words, and as such they become disturbingly familiar. In these landscapes the Bechers allow you to see how entangled these structures--which the photographers have previously treated as sculptures--are with the world all around us, and how absorbed and diminished they are by that entanglement.

Time and again the Bechers' landscapes reveal little towns precariously accommodating themselves to the insistent, bullying sprawl of industry; entire communities are thrown up in the shadows of these factories and mills, with neighborhoods carved out of the surrounding hills and mountainsides. You see how easily such fascinating industrial designs can get lost in what you learn to see as aggregate eyesores. And though the Bechers have spent much of their career photographing the rusting iron and crumbling cement of industrial Europe, in this recent series of landscapes you're very much aware of a universal iconography of that place we all know as "the sticks." In these landscape photographs it becomes readily apparent that the world the Bechers have documented is, in fact, all around us, from the industrial fringe of the Twin Cities to the scarred mining terrain of the Iron Range and the sparsely populated and densely siloed expanses of the rural Midwest.

 

Inspired by the dozens of hours I spent poring over those photographs, I got in my car and went out in search of tableaus worthy of the Bechers. The source materials aren't hard to find once you start looking for them. There are, for instance, Minneapolis's three remaining stone water towers, all of them absolutely incongruous and stunning remnants of a time when American designers of such practical objects could still give full indulgence to European flights of fancy (and fantasy). The Kenwood tower is on Oliver Avenue South, and was built in 1910 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Works Company. Towering above I-394 just west of downtown, it's a perfect counterpart to some of the Bechers' small town German Wassertürme. So is the Witch's Hat tower in Prospect Park off University Avenue--a Romanesque design that was constructed in 1914 with a bandstand at the top (which, alas, was apparently never used) and a peaked tile roof. The Washburn tower (built in 1934) is in Tangletown, near 50th and Lyndale, and was designed by Henry Wild Jones, the architect who also drew up the original plans for Butler Square. I'd never even seen the Washburn tower, which is more or less in my neighborhood--and it's pretty hard to miss, what with its "Guardian of Health" statues and 16-foot-tall eagles. It's apparent that the folks who designed these towers were huffing some seriously potent fairy-tale fumes, and it's difficult to study their creations for any length of time without entertaining visions of Rapunzel or Sleeping Beauty, or, at the very least, Rick Wakeman.

I also trolled Washington Avenue and the Warehouse District, noticing all sorts of details that had escaped my attention previously. The old rooftop water towers of the Ford Center and the Wyman Building, for instance, and all the now-empty tower platforms that are still clearly visible on the roofs of buildings all over downtown. I also checked out the old Minneapolis Mill District, but my Becher-vision was thwarted by the area's gentrification and a mid-afternoon traffic jam. Curious about what the district had looked like in its heyday, I ventured over to the Historical Society and looked through their photo collection, where I was surprised to find scads of eerily Becher-like images of the Pillsbury Mill complex from the early part of the 20th century. A couple of different photographers who were working around the Twin Cities at the time--Charles J. Hibbard and Charles Gibson--captured industrial buildings, grain elevators, and landscapes that could almost be mistaken for Becher photos.

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