Bernd and Hilla Becher - Modern & Contemporary Art: Evening & Day Sale London Thursday, June 27, 2024 | Phillips
  • “The main objective of our work is to prove that today’s shapes are technological forms even if they did not arise for form’s sake. Just as medieval thought is manifest in a Gothic cathedral our age reveals itself in technological buildings and devices.”
    —Bernd and Hilla Becher

    Meticulously capturing a disappearing architectural vernacular, largely unseen and yet foundational to the fabric of society, Bernd and Hilla Becher’s staging of the built industrial environment proved fundamental to the trajectory of late 20th century photography. Comprising of fifteen individual photographs captured over nineteen years, Winding Towers demonstrates the scientific consistency and individual poetry at the heart of the artists’ photographic lexicon, a command of their medium imparted through teaching as much as their practice.


    Among the first industrial architectural component recorded by the Becher’s, the Fördertürme, or ‘Winding Towers’ series depicted structures in mines used to transport underground resources to the surface. Conscious of the profound and rapid change occurring in German and European heavy industry, after first working together in 1959 the couple soon resolved to document the now obsolete structures that had been such a prominent part of the landscape for over a century. Relentlessly recording the fossils of a former world, the Bechers’ project was time sensitive. As Susanne Lange explains, for the Bechers ‘often having obtained a permit to photograph the edifice in question, only a few days remained in which to actually record it’ before demolition.i



    The effortless balance and elegance of Winding Towers was achieved through the Bechers’ dedication to distinctive serialised stylistic features and composition. Drawing on principles from the German New Objectivity movement, the Bechers sought for their work to be devoid any subjectivity or individual expression. For photographer Andreas Gursky, whose work is being offered concurrently in this sale, each image with ‘well-balanced light without shadows, a centred perspective, distance and a careful crop’ was photographed precisely on a ‘black-and-white negative […] from a slightly elevated perspective’.ii As a former student of the Bechers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Gursky experienced first-hand the artists’ elaborate construction of images that allowed of each subject to be recorded with an unparalleled technical precision and clarity. Exhaustively seeking out isolated structures in crowded industrial compounds, the Beckers patiently awaited overcast conditions before shooting with a large format camera. By minimising the impact of shadow, each apparatus was consistently recorded with a soft, grey background, as if maquettes suspended in space.


    Engraving from Ferrante Imperato's Dell'Historia Naturale (Naples, 1599), the earliest illustration of a ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ or Kunstkammer. Image: Wikimedia



    A system comparable to the arrangement of specimens and ephemera in seventeenth century Kunstkammer, the Bechers organised their subjects by shared functional and aesthetic principles. Groups of buildings defined as ‘typologies’, in grid form across the rows, the Bechers cinematically juxtapose homogeneity and regularity with the minute and idiosyncratic. Encouraging closer inspection to understand the subject, lost amidst the delicate silhouettes of steel forms, the Bechers give prominence to structures with high sculptural value, part of the built physical environment but not accorded cultural appreciation. Through uncovering these ‘anonymous sculptures’, the Bechers ask us to reconsider our surroundings, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the history of functional architecture alongside the rhythms, patterns, and intricacies that can be found in the everyday.


    Collector’s Digest


    • Widely celebrated as the most influential photographers of the post-war period, German artists Bernd (1931–2007) and Hilla Becher (1934–2015) over five decades relentlessly documented the heritage of the industrial past across Europe and North America. Teaching at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the artists were fundamental in fostering the next generation of photographic talent including Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Candida Höfer.

    • Among the artists’ major achievements, after being awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale in 1990 and the Erasmus Prize in 2002, the Bechers received the Hasselblad Award in 2004: lauded as the most prominent photography prize internationally.

    • Exhibited and collected by a range of global institutions, the couples’ landmark retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2022 that travelled to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2023, was their first major retrospective since their deaths.



    i Susanne Lange, ‘Typologies and Comparative Juxtapositions’, Bernd and Hilla Becher: Life and Work, Cambridge, 2007, p. 55

    ii Andreas Gursky, quoted in Jeff Wall, ‘Andreas Gursky in Conversation with Jeff Wall’, Andreas Gursky, exh. cat., Hayward Gallery, London, p. 113.

    • Provenance

      Sonnabend Gallery, New York
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2005

    • Literature

      Typologien: Industrieller Bauten, exh. cat., K21 Kunstsammlung im Standehaus; Haus der Kunst; Musée national d'art moderne; Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Düsseldorf, 2003, no. 44, p. 110 (illustrated, p. 111)
      Armin Zweite, ed., Bernd & Hilla Becher: Typologies, Cambridge, 2004, pl. 44, p. 98 (illustrated, p. 99)
      Christopher Williams, ‘Hilla Becher’, ArtForum, vol. 54, no. 5, January 2016, online (illustrated, titled as, Winding Towers, 1963-1992)

    • Artist Biography

      Bernd and Hilla Becher

      German • Bernd 1931-2007 - Hilla 1934-2015

      Husband and wife Bernd and Hilla Becher began photographing buildings and relics of the Industrial Revolution, such as coal mines and cooling towers, in 1959. Like objective scientists removing a specimen from the field, the Bechers framed their subject in a manner that isolated it from its environment. Often, these stark, beautifully detailed prints were then displayed in grid-like structures, forming stunning 'Typologies'.

      By the time Bernd Becher became a professor at the Düsseldorf Art Academy in 1976 (policy would not allow Hilla to be a simultaneous appointment), the Bechers' photographs, with their seemingly neutral point of view and serial display, were already being applauded by the international art world as important works of Minimal and Conceptual Art.

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Property of a Distinguished Private Collection


Winding Towers, 1963–1982

signed 'Hilla Becher Bernd Becher' on the reverse of part one; each part sequentially numbered 'A1-15', print 'A1' with additional annotations on the reverse
gelatin silver print, in 15 parts
each: 40.5 x 31.6 cm (15 7/8 x 12 1/2 in.)
overall: 173.3 x 239.4 cm (68 1/4 x 94 1/4 in.)

Photographed in 1963-1982 and printed in 2003, this work is unique.

Full Cataloguing

£120,000 - 150,000 ‡♠

Sold for £190,500

Contact Specialist

Louise Simpson
Associate Specialist
+44 7887 473 568

Modern & Contemporary Art: Evening & Day Sale

London Auction 27 June 2024