About a week ago I got a call from a good friend. She reminded me, that the exhibition "Bergwerke und Hütten" (Mines & Mills) with photographies by Bernd and Hilla Becher would end that weekend and I would need to go right away if I wouldn't want to miss it. She had just visited and strongly recommended to go and so I did.
Bernd and Hilla Becher, are German photography artists who started in the late 1950ies documenting the industrial architecture of the slowly dying coal mining and steel industry first in the Ruhrgebiet, then also in other parts of Germany expanding to Great Britain, France and finally the USA.
They were within the first artists who treated purely functional industrial structures as architecture. Traveling for their lifelong project they worked out the parallels between the industrial buildings around the world with the function forcing the form as well as the differences like the small roofs on the top of the shaft towers which can be only found in France, but neither in Germany nor in GB or the US.
The characteristic of the Bechers' photography is to aim for as much objectivity in their pictures as possible. Obviously total objectivity is not achievable and even less when the visual impression is filtered through the lens of a camera, but ther are certain criteria the Bechers set for their work. For example they shot only on overcast days to avoid shadows influencing the picture. They also tried to make an as complete picture of the structure as possible even if it was sometimes very difficult to find the place for the prefect angle.
So far, so good, so interesting.
What I did not exactly expect was how much this exhibition would hit me emotionally. I am considering myself not very much as a "looking back person". Maybe this attitude is part of my way to deal with my grief, I don't know. What I know is that looking at this very impersonal pictures triggered a lot of very personal feelings and memories.
I have to apologize in advance for the bad pictures. It was not allowed to take photos of the photos at the exhibition. So I had to make pictures from the catalog and I had to do it with low indirect light to avoid too much reflection. But I need the pictures to visually draw the line between these artworks and myself - so please bare with me although it does not pay tribute to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher at all.
Dinslaken Lohberg, 1978
I was born in Dinslaken at Christmas 1973.
This mine is not too different from the one in Duisburg-Hamborn (not documented in pictures by the Bechers) where my grandfather worked as a miner. It is about 20 minutes drive from Dinslaken to Hamborn.
When I was a little kid my dad had his office in Ruhrort before it was moved to the Duisburg-Hamborn. He loved it there and I loved visiting him. I had totally forgotten about my dad's old office until I saw this picture of the industrial structure I had last seen driving by more than 30 years ago.
That's where my mom grew up. My family from my mom's side lived close by this place for a long time, but moved away before I was born.
And if you ever wondered why I so easily adjust to the special beauty of Pittsburgh and the region in general, then have a look at these two pictures by Bernd and Hilla Becher:
Pittsburgh, 1980 (look at the downtown skyline in the dusty background)
Nemacolin, PA, 1974
The stories of our childhood - mine in Germany and my generation over there in Pittsburgh - are very much the same - the romantic ones about the purple shine of the steel mills in the night sky which my grandma used to explain with "The angles are baking cookies."
And the not so romantic ones of a dying (and now reborn) region. Or the one about the wisdom of my grandfather, who had always said he did not want one of his sons working underground - one of the reasons why neither my dad nor my uncle where effected when most of the mines closed down.
Or the ones about the pollution ... when for example my grandma told us how she could not hang the laundry when the wind came from the wrong direction carrying all the dirt from the mill and the coking plant.
There is no reason to be too nostalgic, but to lot of reasons to be aware about how these times formed cities, landscapes and most importantly the biographies of people and a special state of mind over generations and on both sides of the Atlantic ocean.