The Becher Photographs

Roland Barthes proposes, in Camera Lucida, to develop a theory of photography through an intensely subjective form of introspection. “I resolved to start my inquiry with no more than a few photographs, the ones I was sure existed for me,” he writes. From this idiosyncratic beginning, he will “try to formulate the fundamental feature, the universal without which there would be no Photography.”

I find this approach to be charmingly arrogant—few critics would attempt something as ambitious as an inquiry into the Essence of Photography to begin with, and those who would might at least have the humility to start with the long history of others who have written about photography. And yet—why not? Why shouldn’t we, as learners in this class, make “what Nietzsche called the ‘ego’s ancient sovereignty’ into an heuristic principle” for ourselves as well, and begin our inquiry with the photos that exist for us?

This summer while visiting my sister in New York, I visited the Dia: Beacon museum and saw an exhibit of photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher. These black-and-white photographs, taken all over Europe between the 1960s and 1990s, feature industrial structures—mine towers, lime kilns, furnaces, pipes, shafts, mysterious edifices of petrochemical engineering. They are impersonal, inorganic, no living figures or whimsical details to humanize them. Yet for some reason, these photographs exist for me. I kept thinking of them long after I went home. Is it because they reveal a hidden beauty of geometric forms in an otherwise ugly environment? Or because they expose the ugliness of the industrial age? Perhaps it’s because they offer an eerie glimpse of a world after the extinction of humans: when we are gone, if we are ever gone, these are the structures we will leave behind.

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