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.

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.

If you follow either the railroad tracks or the river from Minneapolis to St. Paul you will run across all sorts of prototypical Becher material: the elevators and railroad yards just east of the University of Minnesota, the bleak industrial grid off I-94 and Highway 280, and the various moldering power plants and factories that are visible from any one of the bridges that crosses the Mississippi from Northeast all the way south to the Parkway. A drive down Hiawatha Avenue will take you past numerous constellations of warehouses and grain elevators, and if you continue out of town past the Veterans' Hospital and head down Highway 52 you'll roll through the spectacular and wretched sprawl of the Koch refinery, the whole mess crowded with details the Bechers would surely love.

Ultimately, however, the problem with my field trip was that, while I had no problem finding source material for a great Becher photo everywhere I went, I couldn't quite translate what I was seeing into true Becher art. What these artists do, of course, isn't quite so easy as just looking at something carefully. A great photographer is a translator, and the Bechers translate everything they look at into their own language. Though I suddenly found myself seeing everything around me in Becher-like abstraction, I could never quite manage the atmosphere of those photos. I couldn't, for instance, get enough distance or crop the surrounding buildings or cars. And, damn it all to hell, I couldn't see in black and white. It was frustrating, because every day I would have these random and uncharacteristic shocks of the familiar: There's a Becher image! But, briefly fascinating as these bursts were, they were never even remotely as satisfying as the photographs themselves. I could read the language, apparently, but I couldn't speak it. Or something like that. I do know that the Bechers carried me away from myself and had me seeing things for a time, but, sadly, in the end they brought me back to the world and plopped me down right where I started.

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