‘Of course we were freaks’ - An interview with Hilla Becher (complete translation)


Contemporary German Photography

Earlier, I mentioned an interview with Hilla Becher, published in Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin. Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin has now agreed to let me publish my translation of the full interview on this blog.

For almost fifty years, photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher lived and worked together as a world-renowned artistic couple. Here, a year after the passing of her husband, Hilla Becher for the first time speaks about her life and about the future.

An interview by Tobias Haberl und Dominik Wichmann.

SZ-Magazin: How are you doing, Frau Becher?
Hilla Becher: Oh well… The past few months were quite sad.

SZ: About a year ago, your husband passed on. What has changed since then?
HB: I notice that I’m getting older, that it’s getting harder for me to work with the large cameras. I know, at some stage I will have to stop, but there are a few things that we started together that I would like to finish.

SZ: Can you give us an example?
HB: First and foremost I have to fix up the archive so that it can get passed on in a proper state. I would also like to do one or two more work trips. Maybe that’s an illusion, but one likes to stick to illusions.

SZ: You intend to continue photographing, even without your husband?
HB: Yes, I will take photos again.

SZ: Do you have anything in mind?
HB: Do you know Teleskopgasbehälter [a type of gas tank - JMC]? Especially in England those are huge and really beautiful. Those I would like to take photos of. They are becoming extinct. I already went to London, where I drove around in a cab to take snapshots. Now I know where they are.

SZ: You spent your life photographing industrial memorials: Hundreds of blast furnaces, hundreds of water towers, hundreds of coal bunkers. Is this about being complete?
HB: At the end of his life, Bernd often said: Hilla, we haven’t finished the job. And then we almost started fighting because I said: What do you think? We can’t finish our job, since it’s infinite.

SZ: Was it difficult for him to accept this?
HB: I think it was. He never managed to tell me what he meant by “finished”. We knew we would not be able to photograph everything. In Russia, for example, it turned out to be too difficult, we did not manage to get permission to work there.

SZ: Were there family photos at the Becher’s house, for example at Christmas?
HB: That didn’t exist with Bernd, but I always had a small camera on me. It was important for me, to keep memories.

SZ: Who did you take pictures of?
HB: Our son, my mother, just family. Doing group portraits was my favourite thing to do. But I did not just shoot left and right but arranged everybody: the first row sitting down, the second row standing, the third row [standing] on a table. Very conventional.

SZ: Why was your husband not interested in such photos?
HB: He rejected them because he was not interested in taking them. Actually, he was never interested in photography.

SZ: That is an unusual statement about a man who spent his whole life on it.
HB: Originally, Bernd did sketches. In the beginning, he sketched industrial landscapes. But he never managed to finish his work, because he was so precise. Often the object was demolished right in front of his eyes, back then heavy industry in the Siegerland [German region - JMC] was being abandoned for good. The demolishing, the decay happened faster than he could sketch it.

SZ: So then he took photos?
HB: Right. He borrowed a 35mm camera and took photos, to use them for his sketches. That’s how it started, photography as the means to an end.

SZ: That sounds like the mentality of a historian or someone archiving things. Did you consider yourselves as artists at all?
HB: What is an artist? Calling yourself an artist does not make you one, that’s for others to decide. It doesn’t make any sense to say: I am an artist!

SZ: Why did you never take photos of people or of faces?
HB: Because people weren’t our subject matter. People are a different topic.

SZ: But people are an interesting topic.
HB: Maybe for others, not for us. If someone takes photos of cathedrals nobody asks: Where is the priest? Where are the worshipers? That would not be suitable. If there’s a person in an image, s/he dominates that image. And if s/he is not part of the topic, s/he is in the way.

SZ: But why furnaces and conveyor belts?
HB: Because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do - that is what we liked. A person always is what s/he wants to be, never what s/he is. Even an animals usually plays a role in front of the camera.

SZ: But to only take photos of industrial architecture - such a decisions has to consciously made.
HB: That’s what we ended up doing. In the beginning, Bernd wanted to preserve and bring back his childhood with those images. In the Siegerland, he grew up between ore mines and furnaces.

SZ: But you had a totally different background. You came from Potsdam.
HB: That’s right, as a child I took photos of palaces and gardens. But at some stage I was bored by it. Those images one always had in one’s head anyway. And then I came to the Ruhrgebiet [German industrial region - JMC] for the first time and was perplexed. I had never seen anything like that before. It was new and alien for me, it was like an adventure.

SZ: And you never got bored of blast furnaces, not once in forty years?
HB: Never. We studied this anonymous architecture, object after object, until we understood the enormous variety of the subject. At some stage we realized that in England such objects looked slightly different. And then we asked ourselves: Why do they look different? We learned why they looked the way they did. We learned how blast furnaces worked, how they were constructed, what parts they had. And then it was easier to find out whether there was a front and back. At some stage we asked ourselves: Does a blast furnace have a face?

SZ: Does it?
HB: Not literally, but you can take its photo in such a way that it’s easier to understand it. Picture a horse: Would you take a photo of a horse straight on? Of course not, that wouldn’t look like a horse, that would be a monster.

SZ: Does English headgear look different than French one?
HB: English people are pragmatic. They don’t mind when there is a wheel in the landscape. French people prefer something lovely, they might add a roof to such a thing or some ornaments, until it starts to look like a Chinese garden pavillon.

SZ: And the Germans?
HB: They’re similar [to the French]. They often added some features so they looked like castle towers. It’s fascinating to see how these objects are not made to be beautiful, but they still possess a beauty. Like a hammer or pliers, things that are honest and perfect, things you can’t improve any further.

SZ: Something is beautiful when it’s honest?
HB: I’m sure that’s not the only condition. Something can be beautiful when it is straight or direct of consistent. Consistent is a better word: When something in an ideal way fulfills its purpose and when it is not convoluted or overly complicated.

SZ: Is a cooling tower beautiful?
HB: We perceived those towers as beautiful. Often, one of us discovered a new one and said: “This one is really beautiful!”

SZ: And who then pressed the shutter?
HB: That didn’t matter at all. We always worked as a team. One of us would entertain spectators or watch out, the other one would fix the tripod at the railing or cut away weeds. We had to help each other. It’s very tiring to climb over ladders and stairs onto a blast furnace when you have to carry heavy equipment. When possible we also worked with two cameras. We often had to work under time pressure, because we were only allowed to be in those areas for a limited amount of time, and the weather had to be right, too.

SZ: Who was the driving force?
HB: Clearly Bernd. He was obsessed with things, and he often repeated everything until it was perfect. Actually, I am also a perfectionist, but he was so extreme that sometimes I had to stop him in his mania, to slow him down.

SZ: You were his corrective person?
HB: It would be exaggerated [to say that]. I accepted him as the boss, and he accepted me as the consultant. There’s no other way. By the way, I’d recommend that to any married couple. One person should get the power to say: This is how it’s done! I believe that deep down, men really are a little bit more ambitious than women.

SZ: Maybe they’re also more narcissistic?
HB: Not necessarily, but I think that for men it’s more important to have that role. I didn’t have a problem with that at all, and I preferred to try to persuade him through discussions to decide along the lines of what I was thinking. It’s all a question of diplomacy.

SZ: Gilbert and George, anther art couple, don’t perceive themselves as two individuals any longer.
HB: Of course, for them it’s a role-playing game. But for them it’s the truth. We knew them quite well. Even back in the 1960s they often came to visit for coffee and cake. Sometimes I made dinner, back then they were still excited about my meat patties. These days, I wouldn’t do that any longer. They’ve all come to be so spoilt now.

SZ: Did your husband and you see yourselves as two or one artist?
HB: Why should we have merged into being one artist? No, we had a common task, that was important for us. It was all about the job. Like in a car-repair ship, where people work as a team to fix um the cars.

SZ: You took photos in Germany, France, England, and the US. How did those industrial areas open themselves up to you?
HB: Often, we spend many weeks on the road in our Volkswagen bus. We slept in it, we changed the negatives, prepared the food, simply everything. Often we also traveled with our son.

SZ: Sounds rather cramped.
HB: Back then, we we unable to afford hotels, and often in those areas there were none anyway.

SZ: Do you remember those days as full of privations?
HB: No, as a nice time, as a very nice time. We were in areas where there was no tourism. They were real. No flowers, no sales. Those areas were what they were.

SZ: Wasn’t it hard to travel around England in a small bus with a small child?
HB: Our son for sure when through a lot, but that’s the way it was, and he made the best of it. He learned to keep busy, doing crafts and art work.

SZ: How did this work? A few days or work, then a few days or rest?
HB: There were no breaks for Bernd. I sometimes would have liked to have a break, especially because of our son, but it wasn’t that simple. Sometimes, breaks just happened and we had a few hours because it was raining or the sun was too bright.

SZ: You didn’t like the sun that much, did you?
HB: That we heard a lot: The Bechers don’t like nice weather. That’s not correct. You can see the details more easily when it’s overcast. Contours don’t double because of shadows. We didn’t want a mood in the photos, we wanted universality.

SZ: Why?
HB: Because then you can compare object more easily.

SZ: So your goal as a lack of emotion?
HB: In the end it was. When you take a photo of a lake behind which the sun is setting, then the sunset is the most important element of the photo. But we were only interested in the lake. Except that for us the lake was a coal storage tank or a blast furnace.

SZ: Did you sometimes go on vacation together?
HB: A real vacation, two or three weeks, we never had. Bernd was not interested in that at all. I am currently trying to make up for it. My son is helping me. Just a little while ago we went to Cuba together.

SZ: For a long time, you didn’t make a lot of money with your photos. Did you have to justify your way of work?
HB: A lot! Especially in the beginning, people couldn’t understand how we could do something that didn’t pay, something that thus wasn’t worth anything. I found that to be typically German. The English were different, they had a sense for people who do something weird.

SZ: In England, such people are called freaks. Were you freaks?
HB: Of course, we were freaks. I don’t know the translation of the word, but I think we were freaks.

SZ: Were you worried you wouldn’t be able to afford the traveling and the work any longer?
HB: During the first years, we often were stuck. We had financial problems, bad lenses, each trip posed a problem. And then Bernd was offered to teach at the [art] academy in Düsseldorf. One of the reasons why he accepted the offer for sure has to do with the position we were in.

SZ: What did you find fascinating about your husband when you met him?
HB: That he was pretty crazy. That might sound a bit simple, does it? But we were similar, we had things to talk about, and we complemented each other. And he was different than the other men. That’s all I can say. And of course I fell in love with him.

SZ: What would have happened, if you had got a divorce?
HB: You don’t think that way. But I think he would have continued his work. And I think I would have somehow continued, too.

SZ: Would you have continued work together?
HB: If that had been possible, sure.

SZ: Your curiosity for work together was that big?
HB: At the end, it wasn’t any longer. The year he died I had to push him to go to France to finish our book on grain silos. He didn’t feel like it any longer. The energy was gone.

SZ: Was your husband a melancholic person?
HB: No, he was funny and full of humour. Bernd could be rather blunt when he wanted to. Once, it’s not that long ago, near Zeche Zollern II we met a man, who came to us and said “You are the Bechers - funny, I was sure one of you was dead.” Bernd shot back: “No, not really. I would have noticed!”

SZ: Do you think of your work as romantic?
HB: Our attitude was romantic, our images are not. We tried to erase this feeling from our images, we didn’t want people to notice.

SZ: Let me ask this question this way: Do you see typical German character traits in your images?
HB: Not at all.

SZ: Even though you both experienced World War II?
HB: It’s true, we both got roughed up a lot by the war. I remember how I thought after the war: God, my parents have such sentimental ideals of landscapes, beauty, music. I found their ideas ridiculous, even idiotic. I also found it funny to go back to school in 1945 and to embroider handkerchiefs in needlework class. That was weird.

SZ: So the experience of war shaped your aesthestic understanding?
HB: That’s different, our work doesn’t have to be typical German because of that. The idea of a bourgeois life was gone, I didn’t take those things that seriously any longer. That way, I was open for an independent way to view things.

SZ: Is that what made your images that melancholic?
HB: Our images are melancholic? I’m sorry, but that I can’t understand at all.

SZ: But the photos show a world that doesn’t exist any longer, a Germany from the past. That could make a viewer sad.
HB: Yeah, the olden days that will never come back, I know what you mean. A steam engine also makes many people melancholic. I guess that’s what you call nostalgia. Not a nice word, I think, but sometimes it fits. Because there is nothing left of those facilities but memories. The steel is being turned into scrap metal to make money. And even though heavy industry back then was still very active, you could sense the change.

SZ: Your oevre traces a straight line through history. There are no news in them, no Cold War, no student movement, no re-unification.
HB: That we did on purpose. We always said: We cannot comment. We never took sides during a strike. You can’t criticize when you want to photographically conclude something. We were not siding with the capitalists, and we were not siding with the exploited. Those words don’t fit, it’s all way more complicated than that.

SZ: Didn’t you find it hard not comment on those questions, given you were political and thinking people?
HB: We had debates with friends and other artists, but but we could not go to a factory in the Ruhr region and say: This blast furnace is the cause of all evil. It wouldn’t have been correct. What matters is whether the blast furnace produces hospital beds of steel for bombs.

SZ: Were accusations made against you?
HB: Of course! We were accused of making something look beautiful that could be used…

SZ: … to kill people.
HB: Exactly.

SZ: How did you react?
HB: We remained undeterred. When working we spent hours talking to the people at the blast furnaces, who had worked with them for years. They understood our idea. And we understood them. We didn’t find it strange that they identified so completely with their factory. They were even sad when their furnace was demolished. They wouldn’t have liked to learn from two students that they were slaves of capitalism. They would have laughed at us. They all had their little houses and went on vacation once a year. They were content.

SZ: Star photographers like Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth or Candida Höfer learned with you at the academy. What is the secret of the Becher school?
HB: That’s Bernd’s school. It was his job at the academy.

SZ: Now you’re overly modest. The Becher school would have been unthinkable without you.
HB: Of course, I met all these people, they often came to visit and we talked, but it was first and foremost Bernd’s job.

SZ: What’s behind the phenomenon?
HB: It’s an attitude, an attitude towards art and towards life. They were young, and they saw how we lived, how we worked without asking many questions. I’m sure that was encouraging for them in the beginning, since they didn’t know where the voyage would be going. Bernd encouraged and supported them to do their own things. But he didn’t create any artists. Where there was nothing to begin with, nothing emerged. Rather, it was about the way to approach and work on a topic, maybe also about humility and modesty.

SZ: Andreas Gursky’s mega sizes don’t appear very modest.
SZ: Nonsense. It’s the attitude that matters. In the beginning, Andreas Gursky didn’t know that he would be so successful later. He also drove a cab to make money. And then he started his work, without knowing about whether it would be successful, with no security.

SZ: How did your husband regard the hype around the Becher school?
HB: He was surprised about it, but I think that he also was a bit proud.

SZ: Your own works also turned into desired collectors’ items. These days, they hang in the most important museums of the world. How did you react when you suddenly noticed that you were celebrated for the very work that you had had to justify for such a long time?
HB: We continued working. Bernd even refused to deal with the hype and the many requests. He often said: No, they don’t get anything! We are not a mail-order business. Sometimes, I really had to remind him that we had to make money and to pay rent.

SZ: But satisfying it was, wasn’t it?
HB: Of course, in the end it was satisfying. And that he enjoyed. But regardless, he often didn’t show up for our openings. For example, our exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris; I hung the images and thought he’d show up for the opening. But he didn’t. He didn’t feel like it.

SZ: Whom do you miss more, the partner or the artist Bernd Becher?
HB: For me, there’s no difference, but if I had to decide then of course the partner. For me, it would have been alright to work a little bit less, to fix up the archive and to have a little fun, to travel a little. But I think he would not have accepted that, and now it’s too late anyway to think about that.

SZ: He would always have preferred to go to Northern England instead of Cuba?
HB: Yes, and he wouldn’t have liked it if I had done it. He thought you didn’t belong there. He didn’t have that kind of curiosity. Once, a doctor advised me to go to Teneriffe because of my bronchitis, and he said: Hilla, what do we want to do on Teneriffe? We don’t fit in there.