For more than forty years, the Bechers photographed winding towers, blast furnaces, silos, cooling towers, gas tanks, grain elevators, oil refineries, and the like—all examples of the European and American industrial architecture that had begun to disappear in the transition from an industrial society to an information society. Their works typically present each structure frontally against flat, evenly gray backgrounds. By using large-format cameras and finely grained black-and-white film, they ensured that the motifs they photographed were rendered with a high degree of precision and clarity.
The Bechers organized the images into groupings assembled in grids, classified by function into types. In this strict layout, each structure may easily be compared with the others. The nine separate pictures in Winding Towers together transform the specificity of the individual towers into variations on an ideal form and, conversely, preserve their individual characteristics within a typology.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)
In 1957, Bernd Becher began taking photographs of industrial buildings in West Germany. The same year, he met Hilla Wobeser, who had also spent time photographing the country's industrial regions. Knowing that much of the infrastructure of these areas would not survive the impending collapse of Germany’s coal and steel markets, they set out to document the buildings and machines of a disappearing economy. Winding Towers exemplifies their approach: the metal structures (which maneuver equipment into the mine shafts below) are framed in a uniform manner, with no workers in sight. As Bernd once commented, “the winding towers . . . look very similar, and you could think that they came from a production series, like cars. Only when you put them beside each other do you see their individuality.” The Bechers' first solo gallery exhibition in North America was held in 1972 at Sonnabend Gallery and included several groups of winding towers as well as photographs of water towers, silos, and gas storage tanks.
Gallery label from Ileana Sonnabend: Ambassador for the New, December 21, 2013–April 21, 2014.